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N.Koreans go to the polls, and the results are almost certain

Publication Date : 09-03-2014


It is the highest and most sacred peak in the Korean peninsula, where North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung led a resistance movement against the Japanese, and where his son and successor Kim Jong-il was supposedly born.

On Sunday, grandson Kim Jong Un will also lay claim on Mount Paektu – as his constituency – in his first election since inheriting the Hermit Kingdom after his father's death in 2011.

But, instead of taking over his father's constituency number 333, the third-generation leader has chosen to stand for Mount Paektu, which is numbered 111, for symbolic reasons, say analysts. The seat has been held by a vice minister of construction since the last elections in 2009.

Associate research fellow Sarah Teo from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who specialises in Korea peninsula affairs, told The Straits Times: "It is something to be revered, it signifies the sovereignty and authority of his leadership, and it will further elevate his status and consolidate his leadership over North Korea."

It is almost a guaranteed win, as Kim's name will be the only one on the ballot - as with all the other 686 constituencies in the communist state.

Citizens can choose to vote against the 31-year-old leader – if they dare to walk up to a special booth and cross out his name. But no one will be foolish enough to do so, as "there are consequences such as being politically criticised or restricted", defector Mina Yoon, who escaped in 2011, told NK News.

North Korea's state media has announced that all the candidates for the election of its Supreme People's Assembly have been nominated and registered at all the constituencies. They include service personnel, workers, farmers, intellectuals and officials who are "devoting themselves to the prosperity of the country and the happiness of the people".

On the streets, slogans encouraging people to vote and a "Song of Election" can be heard and constituencies are "crowded with citizens confirming their names on voter rolls", said the Korean Central News Agency. Anyone above the age of 17 must register to vote.

Seoul-based tour operator Kim Bong Ki, however, paints a different picture. The head of Panmunjom Travel Center, which organises tours to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas, told The Straits Times that it's "life as usual" for North Korea citizens.

"People know that the elections are just a procedure, that the results have already been decided, and Kim Jong Un will be elected," he said, adding that the elections have not affected the demand for his DMZ tours.

The totalitarian state holds elections every five years for two reasons – legitimacy and surveillance, according to Teo. Its first elections were held in 1948, three months after South Korea’s first general elections.

 “It shows that whoever wins has the support of the people. It’s also a form of census and surveillance. It’s a way for the authorities to check if the citizens are where they are, and if anyone has defected.”

Those who have indeed defected – mostly to the neighbouring China and South Korea – will have to find their way back to show their presence on Polling Day, so as not to implicate their families, she added.

Teo does not think the North Korean leadership will make any surprise moves before the elections, as the results are “pretty much a foregone conclusion”.

The current ruling Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland holds all 687 seats within the Supreme People's Assembly. Its members come from four different parties - the dominant Workers' Party of Korea led by Kim, the 50-seat-strong Korean Social Democratic Party, the Cheondoist Chongu Party which holds 22 seats, and the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan which is represented by five officials. All candidates must be sanctioned not just by their own party but also three members currently sitting in the assembly.

The last elections in 2009 drew a 99.98% turnout of voters and 100% mandate. This year's results may not be too different, but political analysts will still be monitoring the process for signs of power shifts in the ruling party. Kim shocked the world last December by executing his once powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek for treason, and there was recent speculation he has also purged his right hand man Choe Ryong Hae – until the latter reappeared on official TV footage after a mysterious absence.

Who will rise or fall remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain - even if he gets the people's mandate, the young leader will continue to find ways to consolidate his power.


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