South Korea’s presidential race, which culminates in a national vote this Wednesday, is giving many North Koreans living in China a first look at an election in which citizens actually get to decide the outcome, sources in China told RFA.
North Korea does have elections for various government positions, but only one pre-approved candidate is on the ballot. Coverage of the South Korean presidential campaign is almost completely nonexistent in isolated North Korea. But news of the race can be easily found on the internet in China, where tens of thousands of North Koreans live and work.
The fact that Wednesday will be South Korea’s 20th presidential election is not lost on the North Koreans who are able to tune in, as their homeland has only had the three hereditary rulers of the Kim Dynasty since both Koreas were founded in 1948.
Sources told RFA that North Koreans in China are glued to coverage of the South Korean presidential campaign, intrigued that candidates are able to freely criticize each other, the sitting president and past presidents as they vie to convince their countrymen that they would be the best choice to lead the country. The South democratized rapidly after emerging from military rule in the late 1980s.
“Yesterday, I had a meal with a friend in Dandong who is a North Korean trade official. When I brought up the topic of the 20th presidential election in South Korea, I was surprised that he said he was watching the campaign on the internet in his spare time,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service March 3.
“My friend said it was surprising to see so many presidential candidates in South Korea,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
There are 14 registered candidates in South Korea’s presidential election this year, but only two — Lee Jae-myeong of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party — have a realistic chance of winning.
The trade official told his friend that he was flabbergasted that each presidential candidate can give speeches in public to argue their cause.
“My friend confessed his honest feelings to me, saying this kind of thing would be totally unimaginable in North Korea,” said the Dandong resident.
“He said he is really taken aback by the fact that nobody tries to stop the presidential candidates who claim that the country is in need of serious changes or political reforms. He criticized how North Korea’s political system is a hereditary dictatorship, saying that the election of North Korea’s supreme leader should be done as it is in South Korea,” said the Dandong resident.
North Koreans in China also have more free time these days to pay attention to the South Korean presidential race. Trade between North Korea and China has not fully resumed after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus. Many traders from North Korea have been able to tune into to news of the campaign in the morning, a source in Jilin Province, east of Dandong’s surrounding Liaoning province, told RFA.
“I heard from a North Korean counterpart that the internet news they watch every morning is all about the 20th presidential election in South Korea,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“Today I invited a North Korean trading partner to my house for a drink. He immediately started talking about the election. I was surprised when he said that North Korea will only become a prosperous country if they can escape their current political system, in which only the Mount Baekdu hereditary bloodline retains power,” he said.
The so-called “Baekdu line” refers to all descendants of national founder Kim Il Sung. The name refers to the mountain on the Sino-Korean border that is sacred in Korean culture as the birthplace of the mythical figure Dangun, the first Korean according to legend.
The Kim family is tied to the mountain through modern day myths that Kim Jong Il, the father and predecessor of current leader Kim Jong Un, was also born there, in a secret military camp, during the time that his father Kim Il Sung was fighting guerilla campaigns against the occupying Japanese.
Though stories of the Kim family’s divinity may only be myths, it has maintained tight control over the country for three generations.
“Among the North Koreans I am close to, it is unimaginable for them to think that they can elect the leader by a democratic voting process,” a third source, from Donggang, a city near Dandong, told RFA.
“In the parliamentary election of the Supreme People’s Assembly, where all matters of the country are discussed and decided, only candidates who have good songbun and who will be blindly loyal to the authorities are pre-selected,” the third source said, referring to official loyalty records that the North Korean government keeps on every citizen and their families.
“The residents are told to vote for the pre-determined candidate unconditionally. Some criticize that they are voting for scarecrows who cannot voice any concerns or competing ideas.”
Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.