Defector explains stark differences between elections in North and South Korea

The author of this piece holds a PhD from Kyungnam University and is originally from North Korea.

North Korea (top) and South Korea (bottom). Image: Yonhap News Agency

The recent democratic election in South Korea prompts me to reflect upon my experience going to the voting booths in North Korea.

In North Korea, everyone is required to vote affirmatively in every election. Even though it has been 10 years since I defected from the North and settled in South Korea, a lot of thoughts still race through my mind every time I participate in the democratic election process.

The diverse cast of candidates, open attacks against opponents turning into personal barbs, the election competition, and the exposure of corruption after the elections make my head dizzy and it tears at my heart. But then I am abruptly moved to the point of tears by the sudden realization of just how good the whole thing is.

Nobody coerces me. No one even pressures or tries to ask me my persuasion. I simply hear the pleas of the parties and the politicians saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

A characteristic of a democratic society involves politicians making claims that everyone wants to hear. “If you elect me, I’ll give you the whole world.” Then they commit some faux pas and feign innocence. After this, the tide turns and they don’t run for office next election. It’s an expression of the people’s will.

Of course, it is also possible to see positive developments. Lacking the time to verify the sincerity and background of each candidate on their own, the media fulfills this role. Recently, IT tools have been used as a powerful resource.

Provided that they are capable of financing their campaign, anyone can become a candidate. However, the campaigns of those without connections, power, and resources are hardly noticed or remembered. Getting one’s name out there is essential; without that, nobody stands a chance.

If a candidate lacks these five key characteristics – power, connections, resources, integrity, and commitment – it doesn’t matter how good or sincere they are. The candidate must be extremely bold: that way their name will be remembered.

I sometimes wonder to myself, is it really that good for the service members of the National Assembly of a given country to have power and money?

North Korea’s election process

North Korea’s elections are the prototypical example of a dictatorial farce. (The central trait is “100% participation, 100% affirmative votes). It’s a bizarre sight to see.

The Workers’ Party assembly members are the only ones with the right to be selected, and they use various social organizations to spread awareness about the importance of voting for them. In actual fact, everyone is forced to vote for them.

In South Korea, there are elections for provincial and county governor, mayor, and educational superintendent. In North Korea, the Workers’ Party appoints People’s Committee Chair people at all levels, including the Province and County. There isn’t even a forced election for the dictator. Only assembly members are voted on.

The polling locations in North Korea have two characteristics. The outsides are noisy and the interiors are strict and orderly. The North Korean flag and the Party’s flags are lined up in a row. Women forcible mobilized from the Women’s Socialist League are on hand. They use loudspeakers to sing songs about the Party and the leadership.

People line up single file and their desire to get the whole process over with as soon as possible is obvious. Whether it is cold or boring, voting is compulsory. Elections always take place in March and November in North Korea; both are cold, windy months. Skipping the vote is a political crime.

The act of voting itself is also a spectacle. The walls of the voting booth are lined with portraits of the Kim family. Inside, people bow to greet the leaders displayed by the portraits, and use two hands to place the voting slip in the box. Then they bow again and leave. You don’t even look at the name of the person you are voting for. Since there is no competition, it is pointless to look. Overseers are on hand to look out for suspicious behavior, and anyone who behaves strangely is taken away.

The only positive aspect of voting day for the North Korean people is that it is a day off from work.

The North Korean constitution very clearly mentions the right to vote and receive votes. However, even if one desires to, they are unable to change their profession for their entire life without the permission of the Party. A farmer must continue to farm, and a miner must spend their whole life in a cave.

These ordinary people, who spend their whole lives with a single career, do not have an opportunity to improve their lives.

Owing to government control and compulsion, these people do not have the ability to develop the habit of thinking for themselves. The Party bureaucrats make it impossible for ordinary people to criticize the leadership’s competence or decisions.

North Korea’s upper class bureaucrats use the Party to retain wide controls over power in the country. In this process, the downtrodden people in society are banned from participating in political discussion.

In systems like North Korea, the weak have no opportunity to make political comments, but in free democracies, they have the majestic ability to use their single vote to voice their opinion. The election that recently happened in South Korea is testament to this.

If North Korea wants to become a normal nation, it must limit the government’s oppression of society and economic life. In a normal nation, the role of the government is, first: economic growth and security, second: maintaining order, third: public services including education, roads, bridges, and a welfare system. Last, it should uphold the dignity of the leadership.