General elections are probably the most notable of all political events, heavily advertised and almost impossible to ignore. Yet one of North Korean elections, the by-election to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on July 19, 1959, was conducted in absolute secrecy with the state press banned from reporting on it. The cover up of this election was largely a success; it has not been mentioned in any North Korean publications to the present day.
The SPA functions as the DPRK’s rubber-stamp parliament. Since the foundation of North Korea in 1948, the Supreme People’s Assembly has unanimously approved all laws without any form of debate or discussion. It is elected according to a standard Communist procedure: one candidate running in each district with voters being officially given a chance to vote for or against him. The first elections to the SPA after the end of the Korean War were conducted in 1957, and the results were also quite Soviet-like: “99.99% of the voters participated, and 99.92% of them endorsed the candidates”. Following this procedure, 215 deputies were elected. However, the late 1950s also coincided with a massive purge in the DPRK. After the failure of an anti-Kim Il-sung conspiracy in August 1956, individuals who argued for a more moderate rule of the country, or opposed Kim Il-sung in any way, were systematically purged. Only two years after the elections, more than a quarter of the elected deputies had lost their mandates. It was then decided that a by-election was necessary.
The Party’s Central Committee decided that no media outlets would discuss these elections – probably to conceal the scale of the purge. However, the Soviet Embassy was informed, and the report by the then second secretary Bakulin on these elections reveals some level of detail.
According to Bakulin’s report, 5 of the 215 deputies died and 51 more were purged between 1957-1959. Of the purged, 28 were members of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), seven were from the Democratic Party of North Korea (DPNK), and eight were from the Party of Young Friends of Chondogyo (PYFC), while three deputies were listed as not being members of any party. The rest of the purged MPs represented South Korean leftist parties of the 1940s: two from the People’s Republican Party, two from the Laboring People’s Party and one from the Union of People’s Masses.
Bakulin’s report provides a long list of purged individuals. Kim Tal-hyon, Chairman of the CC of the PYFC; Kim Pyong-jae, Vice-Chairman of the same party; Hong Ki-hwang, Chairman of the DPNK; Kim Myong-jun, Chairman of the DPNK’s Pyongyang organization; Lee Yong, Chairman of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland and the leader of the Laboring People’s Party; Kim Se-ryul, Chairman of the Korean Buddhist League; Kim Chang-jun, Chairman of the Korean Christian League; Kim Tu-bong, Chairman of the SPA’s Presidium; Pak Ui-wan, the Vice-Premier; Hyon Chil-jon, Vice-Chairman of the SPA’s Presidium; Chin Pan-su, Minister for internal and foreign trade; O Ki-sop, Minister for Food Supply and Procurement; Ryu Chuk-un, Minister for Coal Industry; Chu Hwang-sop, Minister for the Fishing Industry; Pak Mu, Director of the Central News Agency; and Choe Chong-hak, Chief of the Army’s Main Political Department. These individuals were previously influential members of the DPRK’s ruling class.
In the electoral districts, the voters were directly informed that their deputy was purged for “anti-people’s activity.” The by-election was conducted in 56 districts with the WPK members running in 55 of them and Pak sin-dok, then-Chairman of the PYFC, running in the remaining one.
The style of the elections was also somewhat different to the previous ones. For previous elections to the SPA in 1948 and in 1957, there were two ballot boxes in each district, one white and one black. A bulletin cast in the white box was counted as a vote “for” the candidate and a bulletin cast in the black box as a vote “against”. According to the regulations, one was supposed to grab the bulletin in one’s hand and then put the hand in the white box first and in the black box second – and discreetly release the bulletin to the box of the voter’s preference. However, this rule was unknown to the majority, if not all voters, so the officials were able to see who voted for and who voted against each candidate.
The system was mocked by foreign media and thus the 1959 elections were conducted in a more Soviet matter. There was only one red voting box, and a voter could have cast an empty ballot – which counted as a vote “for” the candidate, or cross out the candidate’s name – which counted as a vote against. There were cubicles in each of the electoral districts, but an attempt to visit one drew suspicions of attempts to lodge a vote against.
Thus, the results of the election were quite predictable. Out of approximately 1,200,000 votes in 56 districts, only fourteen individuals (~0.00001%) voted against the candidates. These elections had little influence on North Korea’s political history, as the SPA holds no power.
However, they teach us a lot. First, they show the scale of the purge that occurred in the 1950s. Second, the fourteen dissenters were the last people in North Korea to ever vote “no” in an election, as from the next elections in 1962 until the present day, all results have been exactly the same: “100.0% endorsement of the candidates.” And finally, the elections show how easy it is for a closed dictatorship to conceal even such massive events with more than a million participants. Since these elections were not reported by the media, they were effectively unknown to the world – just as the WPK planned. One can only wonder how many such secrets are hidden within North Korea’s tumultuous history.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.