Female traffic cop is North Korea's new hero, but why?

What did a North Korean policewoman do to earn her North Korea's top honor?
Credit: Peter Parks

A North Korean traffic policewoman has been awarded the prestigious 'Hero of the Republic' award for "defending" Kim Jong Un.

Ri Kyong Sim received North Korea's top honor Thursday for an unspecified "heroic feat." The unusual move has led some to speculate that she may have rescued the country's supreme leader from a traffic accident – or even saved him from an assassination attempt.

A vague statement in state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said only that Ri had "safeguarded the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected situation by displaying her heroic self-sacrificing spirit of defending the leader resolutely."

Ri told state TV she had simply done "what any traffic warden could do."

But whatever she did was enough to earn her the rarely granted award – which is usually reserved for military personnel who have carried out acts of heroism in wartime – and a new apartment for her and her family in a Pyongyang high-rise. 

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"I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident," Park Kun Ha of North Korean defectors group NK Intellectuals Solidarity told AFP.

"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," commented Michael Madden, a specialist on North Korea's leadership with NK News.

But, Madden points out, the deliberately mysterious reports could be an attempt to mislead curious North Korea watchers: "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."

North Korea's "traffic girls" are one of the country's most frequently remarked-upon features. Nearly all visitors to Pyongyang note that the capital is dotted with young, stern-faced policewomen who direct traffic with precise, Robocop-like movements. One businessman in the country told GlobalPost that their faces are so serious-looking that they're simply terrifying.

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

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