Since the fall of 2002, North Korea has taken a number of steps to escalate the crisis surrounding its nuclear weapons program. These actions followed the July 2002 implementation of economic reforms that included the lifting of price controls and devaluation of the currency. The North Korean leadership has recognized that economic recovery is necessary to sustain its political rule, and economic recovery will require access to foreign direct investment, foreign technology, and international markets. However, Pyongyang's integration into the international economy is incompatible with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as the international community is unwilling to provide North Korea with full access to the international economy if Pyongyang crosses the nuclear threshold.
The North Korean political system and government are opaque, and assessing Pyongyang's intentions is difficult. Therefore, we must seize every opportunity to discern North Korea's motivations and intentions if we are to find a solution to the current nuclear impasse. On August 3, 2003, elections will be held for North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). Although the elections will not qualify as democratic, and the SPA could be described as a "rubber stamp legislature," the elections could reveal information about North Korean intentions for dealing with the trade-offs between its nuclear weapons program and the pursuit of economic opening.
On August 3, 2003, North Korea will hold elections for the 11th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). The SPA is nominally the highest institution of state power in North Korea, but the SPA Presidium (standing committee) has the authority to exercise all legislative powers under the constitution while the SPA is not in session. Even though the SPA is considered a "rubber-stamp" legislature, the SPA elects the SPA Presidium and enacts North Korean laws. Granted, National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il and senior members of the Korean Workers Party (KWP) wield all political power in North Korea, but SPA elections are one of the few windows we have into North Korea's opaque political system.
According to the North Korean constitution, the term for SPA members is five years, and the SPA Presidium is to select the date for elections prior to the expiration the five-year term, but has the discretionary authority to postpone the election. The SPA Presidium exercised this discretion to extend the term of the Ninth SPA to eight years (1990-1998) as the country was experiencing economic distress and famine during the mid-1990s.
When the elections for the 10th SPA were held on July 26, 1998, of the 687 representatives, North Koreans elected 443 new members, including 107 active duty military members—an increase of 45 military members compared to the previous SPA. The elections were neither free nor fair; the KWP Central Election Committee selected the candidates in a non-transparent process. Nevertheless, the election results reflected the personal preferences of the senior KWP leadership. The elections for the 10th SPA marked the beginning of Kim's formal rise to power that culminated six weeks later with a constitutional revision and greater authority for the National Defense Commission and its chairman Kim Jong Il.
After formally assuming the reigns of power in September 1998, Kim Jong Il replaced 16 of the country's 23 main economic bureaucrats. Sometime during 1998, Kim also approved plans for economic reforms that were finally implemented in July 2002. Following the elections of July 1998, the 10th SPA later enacted legislation to open and reform the North Korean economy. This legislation has included laws on special economic zones, copyrights, arbitration, foreign direct investment, and foreign trade. Critics argue that North Korea's economic reforms have been a failure; however, the reforms and current changes underway in North Korea should not be ignored. Pyongyang must still resolve a number of problems to begin a sustained path of economic recovery, but SPA legislation is one important indication of North Korean intentions.
Why It Matters Now
Since the fall of 2002, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program has worsened, and Pyongyang has taken a number of steps to escalate the crisis. Last December, Pyongyang announced it was lifting the freeze on its nuclear facilities and expelled IAEA inspectors who were monitoring the freeze under the Agreed Framework. In January 2003, North Korea declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the following month began to operate the 5MW(e) nuclear reactor in Yŏngbyŏn-kun. In April, the Foreign Ministry made ambiguous statements regarding the reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods, which could yield enough weapons-grade plutonium for about four or five nuclear bombs, and Deputy Foreign Minister Li Gun (Lee Gŭn) reportedly told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. In early July, South Korea's National Intelligence Service director told the South Korean National Assembly that North Korea had reprocessed "small amounts" of plutonium from its spent fuel rods.
The North Korean media have recently reported that North Korea's nuclear weapons development is contingent upon U.S. actions, but that Pyongyang has the right to possess a nuclear deterrent. All states seek security, and the North Korean government appears to be very insecure; however, Kim Jong Il and the National Defense Commission realize that becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapon state will not come without costs. To sustain political control, Kim Jong Il and the senior KWP leadership understand they must deliver economic recovery, and that economic reforms and integration into the international economy are necessary to do so. Furthermore, the leadership realizes that access to the international economy will be difficult if not impossible once the nuclear threshold has been crossed. Becoming a nuclear weapon state means Pyongyang will be deprived access to foreign capital, technology, energy assistance, and markets.
Pyongyang must make difficult decisions regarding its nuclear program and the "guns vs. butter" trade-off, and U.S. actions will weigh heavily on the calculations of Kim Jong Il and the National Defense Commission. Furthermore, U.S. policy and actions towards North Korea depend upon North Korea's actions, which in turn depend upon U.S. actions, etc. Much has been written about this past chain of strategic interaction and which side is to blame for the current nuclear impasse, but recent and current actions are more likely to be representative of current intentions, and the August 3rd SPA elections could give U.S. policymakers important insight into Pyongyang's intentions.
- Sung Chul Yang, The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis (Seoul: Hollym, 1999).
- "DPRK's Socialist Constitution," September 5, 1998, www.korea-np.co.jp/pk.
- "Central Election Committee Organized," Korean Central News Agency, June 9, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Kim Jong Il Nominated as Candidate for 11th SPA," Korean Central News Agency, July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Kim Jong Il Nominated as Candidate for Deputy to 11th SPA," Korean Central News Agency, July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Nomination of Kim Jong Il as Candidate for SPA Hailed," Korean Central News Agency, July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Kim Jong Il Nominated as Candidate for SPA at Electorate Meetings across DPRK," Korean Central News Agency, July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Kim Jong Il Nominated as Candidate for 11th SPA," Korean Central News Agency, July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Kim Jong Il Registered as Candidate for SPA Deputy," Korean Central News Agency, July 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Meeting of Central Committee of DFRF Held," Korean Central News Agency, July 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "One Hundred Per Cent Vote for all Candidates Called for," Korean Central News Agency, July 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Electorate Meetings Held," Korean Central News Agency, July 15, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- "Election Campaign Brisk in DPRK," Korean Central News Agency, July 17, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- 대한민국통일부, 북한개요2000 (서울: 통일부 정보분석국, 1999).
- 홍완식, “북한 의회의 구성과 기능,” in 심익섭, 신현시 외공저, 북한 정보론 (서울: 백산자료원, 2002), pp. 205-232.
- 최종고, 북한법 (서울: 박영사, 2001).
- “조선민주주의인민공화국 사회주의헌법,” September 5, 1998, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “최고인민회의 제１１기 대의원선거를 ８월 ３일에 실시,” 조선중앙통신, June 4, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “최고인민회의 제１１기 대의원선거를 위한 중앙선거위원회 조직,” 조선중앙통신, June 9, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “최고인민회의 제１１기 대의원선거를 위한 각지 선거위원회들 조직,” 조선중앙통신, June 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “8월 3일에 도（직할시）, 시（구역），군인민회의 대의원선거,” 조선중앙통신, June 25, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “구, 분구선거위원회들이 조직되여 사업에 착수,” 조선중앙통신, June 29, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “김정일최고사령관을 최고인민회의 제１１기 대의원후보자로 추대,” July 1, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “모든 선거구들에서 김정일총비서를 대의원후보자로 추대,” July 7, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “김정일총비서 전국의 모든 선거자들에게 공개서한,” July 12, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “김정일총비서를 제６４９호선거구에 대의원후보자로 등록,” July 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “대의원선거에 즈음하여 조국전선중앙위원회 회의－호소문 채택,” July 14, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- “각급 인민회의 대의원선거를 위한 선거자명부 공시,” July 20, 2003, www.kcna.co.jp.
- Association of the North Korean Defectors, www.nkd.or.kr.
- Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House), Office of the President of the Republic of Korea, www.president.go.kr.
- International Institute of the Juche Idea, www.cnet-ta.ne.jp.
- Korea Institute for National Unification, www.kinu.or.kr.
- Korea Reunification Society, www.tongilcceg.or.kr.
- Korean Central News Agency, www.kcna.co.jp.
- North Korea Information Bank, www.nk-infobank.com.
- Republic of Korea Ministry of Unification, www.unikorea.go.kr.
- Research Institute of Korean Unification, https://riku.sookmyung.ac.kr.
- The People's Korea, www.korea-np.co.jp.
- Yonhap News Agency, www.yonhapnew.co.kr.
 The election results were announced on the following day, which is the anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice. The Korean Central News Agency carried a report in Korean about foreign residents in North Korea participating as observers and their impression of the "political freedoms North Koreans possess through such free and democratic elections." However, KCNA carried no such report in English. See "Sŏn'gŏjang Ch'amgwanhan Oe'gug'inbanhyang," Korean Central News Agency, July 27, 1998, www.kcna.co.jp. For reports of the election and results, see Shin Yong-bae, "Elections Signal Change in North Korea Policy on South," Korea Herald, July 29, 1998, in KINDS, www.kinds.or.kr; Kim Yŏng Shik, "Ch'oegoinminhoeŭi Taeŭiwŏn Sŏn'gŏ Kyŏlgwa Chŏngbu Punsŏk," Segye Ilbo, July 29, 1998, in KINDS, www.kinds.or.kr; Im Ŭl Chul, "Puk Taeŭiwŏ 64% ‘Mulgal'i'," Hankyoreh Shinmun, July 29, 1998, in KINDS, www.kinds.or.kr; "Korean Voters Participate in SPA Election," Korean Central News Agency, 27 July 1998, www.kcna.co.jp; "Kim Jong Il Elected to SPA," Korean Central News Agency, July 27, 1998, www.kcna.co.jp; "100 Percent Vote for Candidates," Korean Central News Agency, July 27, 1998, www.kcna.co.jp; "99.85 P'ŭroga Sŏn'gŏch'amga, 100 P'ŭroch'ansŏngt'up'yo, 687Myŏng'ŭi Taeŭiwŏnsŏn'gŏ," Korean Central News Agency, July 27, 1998, www.kcna.co.jp.
 According to North Korea's Election Law, the election date must be announced 60 days prior to the election. Candidates must receive recommendations and complete registration during the period of five days before the announcement of the election and three days after. The candidate list is declared three days before the election.
 Kim Kwi Kŭn, "Pukchidobu Chŏllyakchŏk Shilyongjuŭi Hwaktae," Yonhap News Agency, February 24, 2003, https://bbs.yonhapnews.net.
 Personal interview data; Doug Struck, "A Taste of Capitalism in N. Korea; Prices, Wages Skyrocket as Many State Subsidies End," Washington Post, September 13, 2002, p. A1; Don Kirk, "North Korean Ending Rationing, Diplomats Report," New York Times, July 20, 2002; Kang Chol-hwan, "North Korea Undergoing Economic Reform," Chosun Ilbo, July 25, 2002, https://english.chosun.com; Brent Choi, "N.K. Enforces Reform in Payrolls, Consumer Price," Joongang Ilbo, July 12, 2002, https://english.joins.com.
 John Pomfret, "Reforms Turn Disastrous for North Koreans; Nuclear Crisis May Have Roots in Economic Failure," Washington Post, January 27, 2003, p. A1; James Brooke, "Trial Runs of a Free Market in North Korea," New York Times, March 11, 2003.