North Korea will hold its long delayed parliamentary elections in March, the state media announced last week. Analysts say the announcement indicates that its leader Kim Jong Il, who had reportedly suffered a stroke, has recovered and is firmly back in control. But some believe, this time the poll could lead to some major changes in the communist state’s parliament.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, during his visit to a military unit at an unknown location in North Korea.
Pyongyang in August 2008. With a series of performances, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea marked its 60th anniversary. Among others were "Arirang", a dance and gymnastic show featuring up to one hundred thousand performers in a synchronised well choreographed display.
A mass choreography, but of an entirely different kind, can be seen on 8 March, when the North Koreans will elect a new Parliament.
The poll will as usual be tightly controlled, and the representatives will be hand-picked by the ruling Communist Party. According to official figures, the last polls in 2003 saw a 99.9 percent turnout and 100 percent support for every candidate. For the West, this kind of result is no less than a ridiculous formality.
‘Show of self-affirmation’
But, in a way, it corresponds to the logic inherent in the North Korean political system, says Professor Rüdiger Frank, an expert on Korean affairs at the University of Vienna:
"In North Korea, people are obliged to back their leadership. Parliament has, accordingly, a function to express the consent of the people regarding the government. For that, it is important that the elections have a hundred percent voter turnout. Because only the elections can be evaluated as endorsement of the government’s policies. In a way, the parliamentary elections remain a big show of self-affirmation."
The parliamentary election in North Korea usually takes place every five years. This time, the polls got delayed by nearly six months amid speculation about the health of leader Kim Jong Il.
The 66-year-old’s failure to appear at a military parade marking North Korea's 60th anniversary last year sparked alarm across the globe. Rumours were afloat that he had suffered a stroke. Pyongyang, however, denied outright the leader was ever ill and published a series of undated pictures and footage, showing Kim involved in public activities, such as visits to military units, farms and factories.
Change in leadership?
Analysts say the recent announcement of the elections is intended to prove to the world that Kim is fit again. Some say it could also lead to possible changes in the parliament’s standing committee.
In recent months, observers have noted some disputes in the communist country, especially on economic policies. A cabinet reshuffle that led to the replacement of at least five ministers holding economic posts earlier this month supports the assumption that different opinions and interests can exist within the monolithic North Korean leadership. Expert Frank Rüdiger hints at three different counter currents: “This is the government at the ministerial level. Then the party has its parallel structures and they have the military, which has always played an important role, particularly under Kim Jong-Il."
In fact, in a joint editorial carried by three state-run newspapers at the start of the new year, leader Kim Jong-Il once again reaffirmed his "military first" policy. At the same time, he also emphasised the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Perhaps, by making these statements, North Korea wants to send some positive signals to the incoming leadership in Washington. But still, it being a secretive state, one can never know exactly what it is up to.