WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Pyongyang traffic warden has received a prestigious “DPRK Hero” award for “death-defyingly” protecting the leader in an “unexpected situation,” a North Korean TV news broadcast reported yesterday.
“For doing what any traffic warden could do, the dear marshall generously let me join the party yesterday, and awarded me the title of the republic today,” a visibly emotional Ri Kyong Sim told North Korean state TV after the award ceremony.
While no details of the events leading to the award have been revealed by North Korean media, a continuous focus on the news in recent days has led some observers to speculate that traffic warden Ri Kyong Sim may have warded off an assassination attempt targeting Kim Jong Un.
“I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident”, secretary general Park Kun-ha of NK Intellectuals Solidarity told AFP Thursday.
“If there was a direct power challenge or assassination attempt, it is likely that Ri Kyong Sim may have stopped a suspicious vehicle for a search,” NK News leadership specialist Michael Madden said.
SOVIET AWARD FOR A MODERN ERA
The “Hero of the Republic,” originally a Soviet-era award, is one of the most prestigious medals in North Korea. It is usually reserved for heroic acts during wartime or to acknowledge major contributions to the country’s development. Such a high level award suggests Ri was involved in an action that helped protect key members of the North Korean leadership.
Throughout reporting, North Korean media have made ambiguous references to how she helped “safeguarded” both the “leader [suryong – 수령]” and “headquarters of the revolution.” No direct link, however, is made between her action and the personal security of Kim Jong Un.
Footage from Ri’s award ceremony shown an audience packed with domestic security heavyweights that include the Vice President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Yang Hyong Sop, People’s Security Minister Choe Pu Il, and director of the Political Department of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces (KPISF) Ri Pyong Sam.
The seven minute feature also includes interviews with acquaintances of Ri including colleagues, friends and family. Her former school teach and school principal are also interviewed.
“Teachers of our school are so excited for the first hero of the republic among the alumnae,” Hong Man Song, Ri’s middle school teacher told state media.
Although all express delight at Ri’s award and praise her conduct, none of the interviewees detail what it was that she had done to be awarded the prestigious title. She remained calm and did her job in what were “urgent and chaotic” circumstances, a fellow traffic girl explains, one of the only references to the event.
North Korean media have featured stories about Ri Kyong Sim extensively in recent days, mentioning her in eight individual broadcasts since she was first introduced on 4 May. But despite a strong focus on Ri in domestic news, Michael Madden cautions that the story could be a deliberate attempt to mislead observers.
“It’s difficult to say whether Pyongyang is toying with Western observers who like to call attention to the women traffic officers, or if they are playing with the rumors of an assassination attempt against Kim Jong Un,” he said.
Pyongyang “Traffic Girls” have become a cult icon for frequent visitors to North Korea, thanks to their bright uniforms, pretty appearance, and the state’s reliance on human–rather than electronic–signals to control traffic.
In March an unnamed “intelligence source” told South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo that Kim Jong Un had faced an assassination attempt in a gun-fight that was related to growing discontent within North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau. North Korean media made no reference to the alleged assassination and foreign nationals living in the city did not report hearing news, or sounds, indicating a gun battle.
Rumor grew about an assassination attempt during a visit to Beijing shortly after Kim Jong Un assumed power in 2012. The story later turned out to be a hoax.
The closest news from North Korea about direct attacks on the leadership came last year when Pyongyang asked the UN to condemn an alleged terrorist plot by the U.S. and South Korea to blow up a statue of Kim Il Sung.
Additional reporting by James Pearson and Subin Kim in Seoul (Picture: KCTV)