PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Millions of North Korean voters, including leader Kim Jong Un, went to the polls on Sunday to elect roughly 700 members to the national legislature, though the vote was more of an endorsement than a competitive contest.
In typical North Korean style, voters were presented with just one state-sanctioned candidate per seat. They cast their ballots to show their approval or, very rarely, disapproval.
The elections, held every five years, are for the entire Supreme People's Assembly, which, on paper at least, is the highest organ of power in North Korea. Its delegates come from all over the country and all walks of life. The candidates are selected by the ruling Korean Workers' Party and a couple of other smaller coalition parties that have seats in the assembly but exercise little independent power.
Kim, fresh off his trip to Hanoi for his second summit with President Donald Trump, is the most prominent candidate of all. Though his power rests in his complete control over the ruling party, government and military, Kim is running for re-election in his Pyongyang district.
Turnout is generally reported at 99 percent or higher. That should of course be taken with a grain of salt, but voting is generally regarded as a duty and responsibility and simply staying at home is not an option.
"I'm very proud to be voting for the first time," said 19-year-old university student Kim Ju Gyong, who cast her vote Sunday morning at the Pyongyang Primary School No. 4 polling station. "I feel happy to be a citizen and I want to do my best for the future of my country."
Under North Korean law, citizens can vote from the age of 17.
Voting begins at around 10 a.m. depending on the location and continues until late evening. Voters show election officials their ID cards to receive their ballot, which they cast in a private booth. If they approve, they simply put the ballot in the box. If they don't approve, they cross the name out in put it in the same box.
Photos and profiles of the candidates are posted before each election.
"No one votes against the candidate," said Jin Ki Chol, the chairman of an election committee supervising a polling station at a cable factory in central Pyongyang. "Everyone knows the candidate well. She has been serving them well for the past five years, so they support her."
The candidate, Jo Kil Nyo, was, in fact, waiting at the polling station as her constituents cast their ballots.
"I'm just an average worker, so I had no idea I would become a member of the assembly," Jo told The Associated Press. She said she has worked repairing roads and was also the head of her neighborhood association.
Election days have a festive mood. There are often bands playing music as voters wait in line, and group dancing for those who have already finished.
"The election will strikingly manifest the fixed will of our people to firmly trust and uphold to the last Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un despite storm and stress," the ruling party's official daily said in a commentary Sunday.
"All the people have to fully display through the election the invincibility and might of the DPRK advancing by dint of the single-minded unity," it said, using the acronym for the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
As an example, North Korean media reported that Kim was elected unanimously to his assembly seat in 2014, the first time parliamentary elections were held after he assumed power in 2011.
The number of deputies in the assembly is based on population — each represents from 30,000-35,000 people. Officials at two polling stations visited by The AP said they were not sure of the exact number this year, or when the results would be announced. Five years ago, 687 deputies were elected and the results despite being a foregone conclusion were announced two days after the vote.
Officials stress that they go out of their way to make it as easy as possible for everyone to participate. They provide "mobile voting" for the elderly or sick people who can't make it to voting stations and keep the voting hours flexible. Polling stations are also quite numerous — there were 105 in the central district of Pyongyang alone, with crowds on seemingly every other block.
While they are decidedly not intended to foster policy debates among the general populace or for the voters to change, bottom-up, the national course, the elections are an important means for the regime to reward up-and-coming cadres and replace incumbents who have already served their usefulness. For the authorities, the elections provide a veneer of democracy and a means of monitoring the whereabouts and loyalties of citizens.
Outside observers note that mustering the nation also provides a chance for the authorities to hone their mobilization skills, check the efficiency of local leaders and keep tabs on potential problems.
In the North's close-knit society, the pressure to conform is strong. Refusing to fulfil duties such as voting or participating in expected group activities can bring particularly harsh social ostracism, if not actual legal repercussions.
The deputies to the assembly generally meet just once or sometimes twice a year, usually in March or April, to approve policies already hashed out by the ruling party, which is headed by Kim. A much smaller group — the presidium of the assembly — meets more often and is more closely involved in the actual functions of the government.
"As a deputy my main job is to take care of problems that come up with my constituents, like water problems or food," said Jo, the candidate seeking re-election. "If I can't resolve something, I take it to the assembly."