Asia Pacific / Politics

North Korea's Kim casts vote in local elections with '99.98%' turnout

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Under the thin veneer of supposedly free elections, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cast his ballot Sunday in nationwide polls to choose new deputies to the country’s local assemblies, state-run media has reported.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Monday that Kim had visited a polling station in South Hamgyong Province a day earlier “to take part in the election of deputies to the provincial, city and county people’s assemblies.”

“Supreme Leader of the Party, state and armed forces Kim Jong Un received ballots from the chairperson of the sub-constituency committee and voted for Ju Song Ho and Jong Song Sik who are candidates for deputies,” KCNA reported.

It added that the North Korean dictator had “met the candidates and warmly encouraged them to become the faithful servants of the people by fulfilling their duties so as to live up to the anticipation of the people, being aware of being the representatives of the people.”

In a separate dispatch, KCNA said turnout in the election was 99.98 percent, with the only exceptions being those not physically present in the country. It added those too weak or incapacitated by illness to vote in person cast their votes via “mobile ballot boxes.”

Official voter turnout in the previous local elections in 2015 was 99.9 percent.

The reports come amid recent attempts by the regime to shore up increased international credibility in the North Korean system, where the Kim family dynasty is all-powerful and free elections are merely a facade.

They also come as long-stalled working-level denuclearization talks between the North and the United States remain at an impasse.

Observers say the North is hoping to use events like Sunday’s elections and meetings between Kim and foreign leaders as a way of whittling down support for crushing international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs by showing that it is, at least superficially, attempting to better integrate into the global community.

The North’s local assemblies for provinces, cities and counties meet once or twice a year to decide on their budgets and other regional issues. They also choose the heads of each province, city and county.

But Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, notes that all candidates are preselected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland — a coalition dominated by the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, with representation from a handful of subordinate parties and organizations. Each candidate then runs unopposed.

All citizens aged 17 and older are eligible to vote, and voting rates are routinely reported at close to 100 percent.

Observers also say the government uses the mandatory elections as an unofficial census, keeping track of whether and how people voted, and interpreting any rejection of preselected candidates as treason.