Handicapping the North Korean Elections

North Korea is holding parliamentary elections. Well, sort of.

Three days ahead of Sunday's vote, the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland looks set to complete yet another clean sweep of the 687-seat Supreme People's Assembly. But maintaining their unanimous hold on parliament shouldn't be challenging: There are no opposition parties on the ballot. The Democratic Front, the governing coalition led by Kim Jong Un's ruling Workers' Party, has handpicked one -- and only one -- candidate for each district.

It's nearly impossible to determine which individuals and institutions hold real power within the secretive North Korean government, but one thing is clear: The Supreme People's Assembly is not one of them. Parliamentary elections, which are held every five years, are little more than a progranda excercise for a regime ruled by its despotic dictatorship at the top.

Still, the North Korean government remains determined to uphold at least the appearance of democratic legitimacy. On Wednesday, the state news agency KCNA reported that election preparations were "gaining momentum." "Agitation activities are going on to encourage citizens to take active part in the election with high political enthusiasm and labour feats, amid the playing of 'Song of the election.'" 

Let the horserace begin.

Just days before ballots open, the efforts, according to the KCNA report, have been effective in mobilizing excitement among the key constituencies. "Seen in streets, public places, industrial establishments and co-op farms are ‘Let us all participate in election of deputies to SPA!'," KCNA reported. The North Korean government is expecting near 100% turnout -- voting after all, is mandatory. That doesn't change the fact that the North Korean government, as it has after past parliamentary votes, will almost certainly report Monday that it had huge success in getting out the vote. Another victory for the Dear Leader!

But according to activists who work with North Korean defectors, these "agitation activities" also include increased surveillance and security. Analysts report that the election functions as an informal census to check for possible defections. It's a neat trick: shoe horning a mechanism of repression into an instrument of sham democracy. 

This time around, Kim Jong Un, the country's supreme leader, is vying for a seat in the mountain district where his grandfather was born. While FP's team of crack statisticians detected an ever so slight dip in Kim's levels of support during the early days of February, the diminutive dictator looks to have smooth sailing ahead. "I feel very grateful for your expression of deep trust in me and extend warm thanks from the bottom of my heart," Kim said in an open letter announcing his candidacy.

Kim, who like all candidates is running unopposed, is assured of winning. But in case any voters needed a nudge, the Central Committee of the Writers Union of Korea released a series of endorsement poems.  "'Going by the Name of Mt. Paektu', ‘He Is Our Deputy,' 'Cheers of Korea' and other poems," KCNA reported, "vividly represent the immutable will of all service personnel and people to remain loyal to the Songun revolutionary leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un."

Poems written for other candidates include "We Will Vote for You," "We Go to Polling Station," "The Billows of Emotion and Happiness," and "We Break into Cheers from the Bottom of Our Heart." Seriously.

But Kim Jong Un is not simply running (against no one) for a parliamentary seat -- he is also running against his father's legacy. Will the younger Kim's 100 percent margin of victory match that of his father? We will just have to wait for the Monday-morning-quarterbacking from the country's pre-approved propoganda machine to answer these types of important questions.

The KCNA election reports have so far been silent the country's horrific human rights record. A recent U.N. report implicated North Korean government officials in widespread torture and killings. As Kim would surely tell you, it's a testament to his revolutionary leadership that he is able to nonetheless gain the unanimous backing of the North Korean people. Crimes against humanity apparently aren't part of the messaging campaign.

While the country has no polling or professional punditry, you don't have to be Nate Silver to forecast Sunday's result. 

Graphics: Ed Johnson


Where Did the Marshall Islands Just Go?

The Marshall Islands are a leading advocate of international action on climate change. If you ever needed an illustration for why, this is it.

This week an unusually high tide, sometimes called a king tide, swept through the island nation's capital city, Majuro. Even something as modest as a swelling tide can have an outsize effect in the Marshalls, which is comprised of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean -- the highest elevation in the entire island chain is just 10 meters.

"Around 1,000 people were displaced as a result of the king tide, and a number of family homes were completely wiped out by the encroaching seas," Marshall Islands Minister for Foreign Affairs Phillip Muller told FP by email, who said it was the worst king tide to hit the Marshalls in decades. "On Tuesday, the cabinet declared a state of emergency, and government agencies are now in high gear to help the communities in Majuro to deal with the situation. But the cleanup has only just begun, and many of the Marshallese affected will never fully recover."

The tide washed through a landfill, picking up trash and sewage, and a cemetery, jostling gravesites. It also damaged buildings and homes. "We are hopeful that those houses that are far away enough from the shoreline that they may be able to be repaired in such a way that a similar tide within the next five to 10 years can be staved off," Marshall Islands Climate Change Minister Tony de Brum said, but he stressed that the king tide will have lingering effects. "When the king tides come, the salt inundates, it doesn't go away.... The salt remains in the soil and in the groundwater."

The Marshall Islands are periodically inundated by high tides like this. The country last suffered severe tidal flooding in June 2013, when tides washed over storm walls and flooded the Majuro airport and the home of the president. "The president tells me that he has since added another foot to the height of his protective sea wall," Muller says. "Such is the new reality of climate change in the Pacific."

The tide this week "is a combination of a little bit of everything," Steven Gill, a senior scientist at NOAA National Ocean Service's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, told FP. The highest tides, like this one, are associated with the alignment of the sun and moon during perigee -- the point at which the moon's orbit passes closest to Earth.

That's also being exacerbated by changes in sea level. "What we're noticing is that it really depends on what's going on with the sea levels," Gill said. He noted that "it can't be said it is entirely a matter of global warming," citing variations in sea level around the Pacific and seasonal variation, but said that "over the long term, there's an increasing sea level trend in that area."

"It just depends on how low-lying your land is, and what season it is -- sea levels will vary by season," Gill said.

That's apparent to the Marshallese. "While king tides are not new to the Marshall Islands, their frequency and ferocity are clearly intensifying," Muller said. "There is no question that these events are increasing in their seriousness and regularity, consistent with the clear scientific information that sea levels are rising faster in the Central-West Pacific than anywhere else in the world."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, on average, sea levels could rise between 28 and 98 centimeters over the next century, which would put much of the Marshall Islands underwater. "While we are doing what we can," Muller says, "even the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise, including from the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, suggest that RMI [the Republic of the Marshall Islands] will literally be wiped off the map some time before the end of the century, given the appalling lack of effort by big emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions."

"It would mean that the Marshall Islands, its people and its culture would be lost forever. This is not a future we are prepared to contemplate."

Instead of taking to the lifeboats, the Marshall Islands has become an outsize advocate for climate change initiatives. In September 2013, the Pacific Islands Forum -- which also includes Australia, New Zealand, and 14 other nations -- issued the Majuro Declaration, calling for increased measures to limit greenhouse gas pollution and new, innovative technologies to curb emissions. Muller says he sees the declaration as a "call to arms" for climate leadership. In April, the Marshall Islands will host a meeting of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, an organization of countries pressing for an international climate agreement that coalesced after the 2009 summit in Copenhagen.

"There is no better way to energize the world's climate diplomats than to have them see for themselves the urgency of our struggle," Muller told FP. "Last month, Secretary Kerry said climate change was like a 'weapon of mass destruction' -- well, here in the Marshall Islands, lying at an average of just six feet above sea level, we are at ground zero."

Photos, top to bottom: GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images; courtesy of Doreen de Brum; GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images; courtesy of Benedict D. Yamamura