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N. Korea Election Is Fixed but Could Bode Change

August 02, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — North Koreans go to the polls on Sunday, and with all the candidates running unopposed, there will be no electoral surprises in what many consider the world's most unabashedly totalitarian state. Nonetheless, North Korea watchers say that the parliamentary election could be a prelude to political and economic changes.

Kim Jong Il, who took over North Korea's leadership after the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, is expected to use the election to consolidate his hold over the country's political apparatus. Analysts say the 61-year-old leader will bring a younger generation into the government and veer away from the rigid socialism espoused by Kim Il Sung in favor of market reforms.

"This election will officially mark the beginning of the Kim Jong Il era," said Koh Yu Hwan, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongguk University who calls Sunday's balloting the most important in North Korea since the 1970s.

"They need to effect a generational change; they need modern, educated young representatives," added Kim Young Soo, a North Korea scholar with Sogang University in Seoul.

North Korea holds elections roughly every five years for what is called the Supreme People's Assembly. The 687-member body is North Korea's version of a parliament, though it meets infrequently, mostly to approve the annual budget.

North Koreans also cast ballots for candidates for thousands of seats on local ruling committees.

There is little suspense since the unopposed candidates have already been selected by the nation's Socialist Youth Alliance. But colorful posters in the Socialist Realism style favored by North Korea are plastered around the country urging 100% turnout at the polls, according to recent visitors to Pyongyang, the capital.

As Kim Jong Il wrote in an open letter July 10, he is expecting "the absolute support of the voters for our party in an expression of revolutionary spirit and unflinching determination." Kim is one of the 687 candidates running for office.

North Korean elections have often augured changes in the country's leadership, according to North Korea watchers, who track the intrigues in this most secretive state as closely as the Kremlinologists of old did in the Soviet Union.

There is much speculation in Seoul that Kim might have himself named as North Korea's president at the first meeting of the newly elected assembly, which is expected to take place Sept. 9.

The post of president has been vacant since Kim Il Sung's death. Kim Jong Il holds the titles of chairman of the national defense committee, commander of the military and secretary-general of the ruling workers party.

North Korea watchers also suspect that Kim might use the postelection period to change the constitution -- along the same lines as constitutional reforms enacted in China under Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to provide a legal framework for economic changes.

"I think that there's a good chance they want to follow the model of China by convening the party, revising the constitution and announcing the changes," Koh said. "Up until now, Kim Jong Il was continuing what his father left behind, but they are realizing that they can't cope with the changing world environment."

For many years, North Korea has been wrestling with the dilemma of how to open up and revitalize its moribund economy without endangering its rigid political system. To a certain extent, Kim also wants what will look like a resounding endorsement of his leadership at a time in which the country is locked in a high-stakes showdown with the United States over its nuclear weapons program.

A Chinese businesswoman who travels frequently to Pyongyang said that there are tremendous expectations pegged to the seating of the new parliament and local ruling committees.

"They are saying there will be a big change of generations. All the old and conservative members will be retired and young people will replace them," said the businesswoman, who did not wish to be quoted by name. "I think big changes are about to happen in North Korea. They are determined to change."

The businesswoman, who lives in Dandong, one of the main trading hubs with North Korea, said that virtually all North Koreans who had been working in China have been called home to participate in the election.

The election is also expected to serve informally as a census that will allow North Korean authorities to determine where people are living and who might have defected. About 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be living illegally in China.

North Korean defectors say that failure to participate in an election is deemed a political crime, often punishable by a sentence to a labor camp.

"They are telling us there's an election on Aug. 3 and we have to participate no matter what," said a 29-year-old North Korean woman, who left her home in Onsong in July to work in China. "We have been taught from our early days to obey, so I'm sure everybody will vote."

In the last parliamentary election in 1998, voter turnout was 99.85% and the approval rate 100%, according to North Korea's state-run media.

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