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TOKYO – North Korean voters will make a choice Sunday when they elect a new national legislature, but not for a candidate. The ruling elite have already done that for them, and there's only one per district.
They get to vote "yes" or "no." Virtually all pick "yes."
One thing they don't get to decide is whether to bother voting. Going to the polls is expected of all eligible voters, which effectively makes North Korean elections a powerful tool for checking up on the people.
For outsiders trying to figure out what's going on in North Korean politics, Sunday's elections for the Supreme People's Assembly may shed some light on what personalities are currently in favor and likely to dominate in the years ahead. For North Korean authorities, the elections provide both a veneer of democracy and a means of monitoring the whereabouts and loyalties of average citizens.
Colorful posters urging citizens to go to the polls line the streets in Pyongyang and other cities. Along with nearly 700 other 'deputies" expected to be seated in the new assembly, supreme leader Kim Jong Un himself has announced his candidacy — in District 111 on sacred Mount Paekdu.
Official turnout rates in North Korean elections are generally reported at over 99 percent, a practice inspired by the tradition of Stalin's Soviet Union. Sunday's will likely be the same.
Fictitious as that may sound, Michael Madden, editor of the NK Leadership Watch website and a contributor to the 38 North news bulletin, said it reflects one reason the autocratic North has elections at all: They provide "the most comprehensive assessment of the population."
Mustering the nation every so often is a chance for the authorities to hone their mobilization skills, check up on the efficiency of local leaders and get a snapshot of internal movements.
"The DPRK is very good about mobilizing the population for events," Madden said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He said legislative elections "are celebratory events with various activities. According to various North Korean migrants and defectors, it is very difficult for a voter to get a hardship dispensation from participating."
Madden said North Korean security officials will review data on nonvoters to glean information on suspicious activity — since absentees could be workers who have snuck off to China for higher pay, people traveling inside the country without formal permission, or military personnel who have gone AWOL. Officials use the data to conduct further investigations, make arrests and gauge the effectiveness of their social control apparatus at the local level.
Neighborhood associations, student groups, workplaces and other local authorities see to it that participation is enforced, according to Seo Jae Pyoung, a 45-year-old North Korean defector who now works for a Seoul-based civic group called the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.
Not going to polls would be "unimaginable," said Seo, who voted in three Supreme People's Assembly elections before he fled North Korea in 2000. "If we didn't go to polls, we thought we would become reactionary forces and would be sent to prison camps."
Everyone voted "yes," he said, and he knows that because there was no privacy. "We went inside the voting booth so closely one after another that we could see where the others had marked their ballots," he said.
The polls — usually held every five years — will be the first since Kim took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. They will take place about three months after a stunning purge in which Kim had his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed on treason charges.
Analysts are looking to see if Kim will replace aging legislators with younger, more loyal ones and will scour the balance of civilian and military officials, party apparatchiks and others for indications of what policies are on the rise.
"When officials are not renominated, this points to them falling out of favor," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea. "The sudden appearance of a new person points to the opposite."
On paper, the Supreme People's Assembly is the highest organ of North Korea's government. Because it's an elected body, it puts the "D'' in the DPRK. But in reality, it is not where the decisions are made. That is done by Kim and his coterie — the leaders of the military and the ruling party.
The assembly is currently composed of 687 deputies ranging from the country's most powerful leaders to exemplary farmers or laborers. They meet for a few days each year and ratify whatever is put before them. There are no opposition parties, though smaller groups in harmony with the status quo do have seats.
Lankov said called assembly "the purest manifestation of a rubber-stamp body."
"To the best of my knowledge," he said, "not a single SPA member has ever voted against a bill or motion introduced by the government."
The newly elected assembly is expected to convene early next month.
AP writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.