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North Korean election provides clues to reclusive Stalinist state

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
March 7, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Koreans head to polls on March 9 to vote for deputies in the Supreme People's Assembly
  • Critics say the poll is merely a political show to legitimize the country's rubber stamp parliament
  • In previous elections in 2009, Kim Jong-il was returned with 100% of the vote
  • Vote is of interest to Pyongyang watchers keen to know the composition of the ruling party

(CNN) -- Reading the official website of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and you would be forgiven for thinking the reclusive Stalinist state was the Cayman Islands of East Asia.

No taxes, zero unemployment and a performance-related reward-for-labor bonus regime, North Korea touts itself as having "a people-centered social system in which the masses of the working people are the masters of everything and everything in society serves them."

This Sunday, North Koreans will be required to show their assent for this political system at general elections universally expected to return the current incumbent Kim Jong Un.

"Constituencies and sub-constituencies are crowded with citizens confirming their names on voter rolls," the state-run news agency KCNA said in a report. "Now the Korean people are fully determined to highly exalt the DPRK's dignity and demonstrate once again the might of single-minded unity by casting ballots for their candidates."

Political show

While critics say the poll is merely a political show to legitimize the country's rubber stamp parliament -- previous elections in 2009 returned Kim Jong il (Kim Jong Un's predecessor and father) with a 100% mandate on a 99.98% turnout -- observers will be poring over the list of legislators for clues as to how Kim will govern the Communist nation over the next five years.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
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Kim himself is running for a seat in the Paekusan Constituency No.111; significant because the numbers are regarded as auspicious in Korean culture and because North Korea claims Mount Paektu, located in Paekusan on the border with China, to be the legendary birthplace of his father.

The ruling Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland holds all 687 seats within the Supreme People's Assembly and voters have only one candidate to vote for in each of the seats.

While the umbrella grouping officially contains four parties -- the Workers' Party of Korea, the Korean Social Democratic Party, the Cheondoist Chongu Party and the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan -- all candidates must be sanctioned by the party including three independents currently sitting as deputies in the assembly.

De facto census

While it is possible for a voter to cast a ballot against a candidate, they must walk to a special booth to do so. Critics say few are brave enough to cross out the name on the ballot.

According to one defector, Mina Yoon, the elections serve as a de facto census at a time when many North Koreans have slipped over the border to China.

"The government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it," Yoon told the Telegraph newspaper. "It is often during elections that the government finds out about defectors and people who have been missed."

Do 100% of Americans vote for their current American president? Never, so to North Korea the American government is far less popular, far less democratic
Prof. Andrei Lankov

Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert from Kookmin University in Seoul, said the sole purpose of elections in North Korea was to legitimize the regime.

"It's a bad analogy, and maybe you shouldn't compare any acting leader to Hitler, but Hitler also had elections," Lankov told CNN. "Officially North Korea is a republic and you are supposed to have elections.

"Stalin had elections, Kim Il Sung had elections, why not Kim Jong Un? It's a way to legitimize (itself), to show that 99% of all registered voters came to vote and all of them -- 100% -- voted for the regime, therefore we are the world's most popular government.

"Do 100% of Americans vote for their current American president? Never, so to North Korea the American government is far less popular, far less democratic."

Who's in, out?

He said that while the Supreme People's Assembly was little more than a sham election, it was still be of interest to Pyongyang watchers keen to know the composition of the ruling party.

"It will give us some new names and the absence of some names will be equally important," he said.

"We will see who is losing power and who is gaining power because according to their unspoken tradition, the top 200 people or so are always by default members of the Supreme People's Assembly."

Analysts will also be keenly watching for signs that supporters of Jang Song Thaek, Kim's once-powerful uncle who was executed in December for treason, have been eliminated or sidelined in the elections.

READ: Uncertainty still dominates on Korean peninsula

READ: North Korea frees Australian missionary

READ: North Korea: 'We were forced to eat grass and soil

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