When you win North Korea's "Hero of the Republic" award, you've probably helped the entire state during wartime, or helped it conduct a nuclear test, or satisfied the Supreme Leader in some major way. This week, an emotional young female traffic officer named Ri-Kyong Sim was honored at a military ceremony with the North Korean equivalent of the Medal of Valor — for what, nobody on the outside is exactly sure, but the best guess is that she may have inadvertently saved Kim Jong-un's life.
Here's the Korean Central News Agency report on Ri's heroic — if mysterious — deed:
Ri 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.
And here's video of Ri overcome with honor in receiving the honor...
...and here's a GIF:
So, yeah, that footage from the ceremony in Pyongyang in front of Ri's fellow officers and military personnel is really something. But the propaganda machine doesn't tell us much more about why this ordinary traffic policewoman received such a high honor — beyond those two very mysterious phrases: "unexpected circumstance" and "safeguarding the security of the headquarters." As Agence France Presse points out, traffic cops doing their job to the utmost capacity tend not to receive this prize from the state:
The "Hero of the Republic" award is usually reserved for heroic acts during wartime, although it is also given to individuals who have made a major contribution to the country's advancement.
Recently, a large number were given to scientists and technicians involved in the North's long-range rocket launch in December and February's nuclear test.
Well, assuming this woman is not a secret nuclear rocket scientist hiding out in a police uniform, what could she have done to be honored for such an outstanding life during wartime? (It's pretty much always considered wartime in North Korea.) There's this, from her traffic cop boss, according to state TV: "Comrade Ri's action was not made possible by pure accident, but made possible because she had always harboured this longing for the respected leader day and night." And then comes the big juicy guess, from the secretary general of defector group NK Intellectuals Solidarity, speaking with the AFP:
"I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident."
That same defector, Park Kun-Ha, said that someone of Ri's stature receiving this honor was "very rare." Turns out assassination attempts are not: Earlier this month, The Week reminded us that assassination attempts involving cars and staged accidents are far from unheard of in North Korea. Indeed, there was apparently an assassination attempt just last year involving a car, a secret North Korean agent in China, and the life of Kim Jong-nam — the oldest brother of Kim Jong-un whom the Supreme Leader doesn't like very much: "South Korean officials claimed to have captured a North Korean agent who'd been ordered to kill Jong Nam by staging a car accident in China. Jong Nam fled Macau, and is now thought to be in hiding in Singapore," The Week's team wrote.
So could that woman breaking down above have foiled a similar plot against the young propagandist-in-chief himself? Or did Ri pull Kim Jong-un out of a burning Maybach with her gloved hands? Who knows? But your best guess is probably just as believable as some other North Korean propaganda out there.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.