North Korea caused even more bafflement than usual when, on Wednesday, it announced that a lowly traffic cop would receive the state's highest honor, a medal called "The Hero of the Republic." The award is typically reserved for military derring-do or nuclear scientists. More confusing still was the official announcement, which stated with conspicuous vagueness that the "traffic girl," as they're typically called, was being honored for "safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance." What circumstance? What does "safeguarding" mean?
An official state video showed the traffic cop, a young woman name Ri Kong Sim, convulsing with emotion as she received her award.
The conspiracy theories flowed quickly, with a North Korean defector organization suggesting that she may have saved leader Kim Jong Un from an assassination attempt. According to some thinly sourced reports, North Korean agents may have staged car accidents in the past to kill their targets.
It turns out, though, that the explanation may be considerably more modest. New Focus International, a North Korean news organization that sources from defectors and from volunteer citizens within the country, says that its sources in Pyongyang indicate that Ri "received the award for putting out a fire that broke out near a propaganda poster." The poster allegedly bore the name of leader Kim Jong Un.
This explanation might sound absurd, but it's not implausible. I suggested this could be the case in my original post on Ri's mysterious award, noting that 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.
New Focus International's story also notes that North Korea is still technically in a "Grade 1 War-Readiness State," owing to recent tensions with the United States. This state includes special, heightened rules requiring citizens to protect images and icons of the leaders. That's partly about propaganda and ideology – Kim is the embodiment the state, after all – but it also has the nice effect, probably comforting for Kim, of making it the personal duty of every North Korea citizen to care so much about their leader that they'll even self-sacrifice to protect a banner carrying his name.
"The Real North Korea," a new book by the highly respected scholar Andrei Lankov, also discusses the degree to which official state ideology treats posters and banners of the Kim family as holy relics, the embodiment of the semi-divine leaders themselves. In this clip, Lankov discusses an unsettling incident in which a father was rewarded for allowing his 5-year-old daughter to drown so that he could save a poster of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il:
In an emergency, statues and portraits are to be protected whatever the cost, as any sacred object should be — and North Koreans are reminded that they must safeguard the images. For example, in 2007 the official media widely reported an incident that allegedly occurred in August of that year.
During a severe flooding, Kang Hyong Kwon, a factory worker from the city of Ich’on, was trying to make his way to safety through a dangerous stream. While leaving his flooded house, he took the two most precious things in his life — his five-year-old daughter and portraits of Leaders Generalissimo Kim Il Sung and Marshal Kim Jong Il. Suddenly overwhelmed by the current, he lost grip of his daughter, who fell into the swollen waters, but still managed to keep hold of the sacred images. The media extolled North Koreans to emulate Kang Hyong Kwon, a real-life hero.
Think about that for a moment. If North Korean officials are going to promote this man as a hero for saving a poster of the Kims while his daughter drowned, would it really be so surprising if they granted a top military honor to a traffic cop who saved a burning banner bearing Kim Jong Un's name?
That's a significantly different story from the initial rumor that she had prevented Kim's assassination. As the North Korea scholar Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt quipped on Twitter, "We know so little about North Korea that a military medal given to a traffic cop becomes rumor of a coup."