N Koreans vote in parliament 'election'

2014-03-09 08:43
A woman receives a ballot to vote to elect deputies to the 13th Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kim Kwang Hyon, AP)

A woman receives a ballot to vote to elect deputies to the 13th Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kim Kwang Hyon, AP)

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Seoul - North Koreans voted on Sunday in a predetermined election for a rubber-stamp parliament - an exercise that doubles as a national head count and may offer clues to power shifts in Pyongyang.

The vote to elect representatives for the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) was taking place as scheduled, the state-run KCNA news agency said, adding the voter turnout was about 65% as of noon (0300 GMT).

Apart from the physical casting of votes, there is nothing democratic about the ballot. The results are a foregone conclusion, with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts.

State newspapers on Sunday stressed it was the duty of "every single person" to vote in the poll.

The Rodong Sinmun - mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party - said the election would promote North Korea as a "dignified, prosperous and strong socialist powerhouse".

State-run media have in recent weeks stepped up propaganda to promote the election, with a number of poems produced to celebrate voting under titles including "The Billows of Emotion and Happiness" and "We Go To Polling Station".

Elections every five years

It was the first election to the SPA under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un, who took over the reins of power on the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in December 2011.

And like his father before him, Kim stood as a candidate - in constituency number 111, Mount Paektu.

Koreans have traditionally attributed divine status to Mount Paektu and, according to the North's official propaganda, Kim Jong-Il was born on its slopes.

Elections are normally held every five years to the SPA, which only meets once or twice a year, mostly for a day-long session, to rubber-stamp budgets or other decisions made by the ruling Workers' Party.

The last session in April 2013 adopted a special ordinance formalising the country's position as a nuclear weapons state - a status that both South Korea and the United States have vowed not to recognise.

The real interest for outside observers is the final list of candidates or winners - both lists being identical.

Speculation over stability

Many top Korean officials are members of the parliament, and the election is an opportunity to see if any established names are absent.

It comes at a time of heightened speculation over the stability of Kim's regime.

Kim has already overseen sweeping changes within the North's ruling elite - the most dramatic example being the execution of his powerful uncle and political mentor Jang Song-Thaek in December on charges of treason and corruption.

"It's a chance to see who might be tagged for key roles under Kim Jong-Un," said professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University for North Korean Studies.

"The list of names can also point to what, if any, generational changes have been made and what policy directions Kim Jong-Un might be favouring," Yang said.

In the absence of any competing candidates, voters are simply required to mark "yes" next to the name on the ballot sheet.

99.98% voter turnout

"Let us all cast 'yes' votes", said one of many election banners that state TV showed being put up in the capital Pyongyang.

And they do.

The official turnout at the last election in 2009 was put at 99.98% of registered voters, with 100% voting for the approved candidate in each seat.

For the North Korean authorities, the vote effectively doubles as a census, as election officials visit every home in the country to ensure all registered voters are present and correct.

"At any other point in the year, family members of missing persons can get away with lying or bribing surveillance agents, saying that the person they are looking for is trading in another district's market," said New Focus International, a defector-run website dedicated to North Korean news.

"But it is during an election period that a North Korean individual's escape to China or South Korea becomes exposed," it said.

Kim Jong-Un has ramped up border security in an effort to curb defections, but more than 1 500 made it to South Korea last year via China.

Ahn Chan-Il, a former defector who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the crackdown was undermining the accuracy of the census, with many local officials not daring to report people missing from their neighbourhood.

"Otherwise, they would find themselves in trouble as it's their responsibility," Ahn said.

Read more on:    kim jong-il  |  kim jong-un  |  north korea
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