Mystery surrounds North Korea’s bizarre decision to grant top military honor to traffic cop

May 9, 2013

A video released by North Korean state media, posted below, shows a North Korean "traffic girl" accepting the state's highest medal. (YouTube)

North Korea's latest mystery is a weird one: Why did the country hand its highest honor, typically reserved for military heroics or nuclear weapons breakthroughs, to a traffic cop?

They're one of the great tropes of Western coverage of North Korea: the "traffic girls," or young uniformed women who direct Pyongyang's sparse city traffic. They've become a symbol of so much we find odd about the country: the obvious lack of basic infrastructure (there are few cars or working traffic lights), the quirky militarism, the over-the-top uniforms, the strict public order, the forced smiles. It's just one of the many endless performances here at Stalinist Disneyland.

One of the young woman, named Ri Kyong Sim, was recently awarded North Korea's highest medal, "the Hero of the Republic," in a highly emotional ceremony broadcast on state TV. Ri, overcome with the honor, appears to sob uncontrollably, a not uncommon display for high state theatrics. Here's the video:

So why did Ri receive the state's highest award for directing traffic? We don't know. North Korea's official news agency explained cryptically that she had "dedicated herself to ensuring the traffic order in the capital city and displayed the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance."

"Safeguarding" the "headquarters" in an "unexpected circumstance" isn't just vague, it's conspicuously vague. This being North Korea, there are juicy conspiracy theories, though they're little more than guesses. A North Korean defector told the AFP, "I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident."

The Atlantic Wire's Alexander Abad-Santos points out that Ri's boss told North Korean state media that Ri's "action" was "made possible because she had always harboured this longing for the respected leader day and night," suggesting her medal-winning act may have involved Kim Jong Un. Abad-Santos also notes that there have been past accusations of people within North Korea attempting to stage car accidents to kill people, although the theories seem to drastically outnumber the actual incidents. According to one such story, South Korean police captured a North Korean agent who later admitted that he'd been sent to the semi-autonomous Chinese city-state of Macau to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, leader Kim's older brother, in a staged car accident.

But, putting aside the suspiciously vague language explaining Ri's award, it's entirely possible that she is just being honored as a simple traffic cop. The "traffic girls" are considered something of national symbols within North Korea. In 2009, then-leader Kim Jong Il reportedly took a "personal interest" in them, buying them new equipment. including fancy, umbrella-covered platforms.

Young women performing small acts of duty, from factory workers to traffic cops to soldiers, are often considered a sort of national symbol in North Korea. As a recent essay at NK News explained, they are treated as both "mothers of the revolution" and as symbols of Korean purity, a theme that scholar B.R. Myers also found in his research into North Korean propaganda.

These "working class heroines" and "women who overfill their quotas" are routinely celebrated in North Korea, which in some ways makes Ri's award consistent with national propaganda and ideology. That doesn't answer the nagging questions over the official explanation for her award – What were the "unexpected circumstances"? What did she "safeguard"? – but North Korea often grants high honors to people who simply save official portraits of its national rulers. Those omnipresent portraits, like the Eucharist at a Catholic mass, are considered quasi-holy symbols of everything that's supposed to matter in the North Korean state ideology.

Sure, it's possible that there was some bizarre incident behind Ri's odd and half-explained award. But it's also possible that maybe, for example, she saved a Kim Jong Il portrait from a flooded or burning house nearby. That's not a very exciting theory, but it's less implausible than a failed assassination attempt.

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Max Fisher · May 9, 2013