Jeffrey LewisTraffic Wardens and Kim Posters

I have a column up at 38North discussing whether North Korea will test a Musudan anytime soon (“Pit or Get Off the Shot“) — with a bottle of the local plonk riding on the outcome with Joel Wit.

I touched briefly on the issue of politics inside North Korea, but wanted to have an extended discussion of the recent rumors of an assassination attempt against Kim Jong Un.

The reason for the rumors?  North Korean awarded one of Pyongyang’s traffic wardens — a woman named Ri Kyong Sim — the title of “DPRK hero” for “safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance.”

What sort of unexpected circumstance you ask? Maybe an assassination attempt?

The reality seems to be a little disappointing.  New Focus International reported that Ri had extinguished a fire near a poster bearing the name of Kim Jong Un, a possibility also suggested by Andrei Lankov (subscription only).

Assassination is, of course, more interesting.  There is a reason that Frederick Forsyth had the Jackal try to kill DeGaulle, rather than merely defacing his portrait.

Still, the fire-near-a-poster story strikes me as plausible.  I thought maybe I might try to explain why.

A few weeks ago, I asked whether readers had their own private indicators of when tensions with North Korea were really, really bad.  I was reluctant to reveal mine, but here goes:  When the North Koreans start packing up the pictures and the statues.

A South Korean magazine published what purports to be the 2004 Wartime Work Guidelines (sorry, Korean only).  The most important part was that “the first task for the North Korean people in wartime is … to move portraits, plaster figures, and bronze statues” of the Kim family to safe places. Shutting down Kaesong doesn’t scare me.  Packing up Grandpa’s bronze would.

In the context of a regime that apparently treats protecting regime images as wartime task number 1, it isn’t hard to understand why a traffic warden gets the full state-media treatment for saving a poster from fire. The DPRK takes statues, portraits and other representations of regime figures very, very seriously.

We actually see a lot of this sort of thing.  Last year, the DPRK was expressed outrage at reports that ROK soldiers had posted an image of the two Kims, with text that says either “defeat” or “kill” Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, posted in a military facility.  (As best I can tell, the picture appeared in the print version of the Korea Herald Business.)

Then the North Koreans arrested someone they accused of being a South Korean spy sent to blow up statues of the Kims. The made guy offer a full confession for the benefit of state media. I should add that the North Koreans aren’t above a little statue defamation themselves.

This all might seem a bit paranoid, but there are also news reports that the South planned to strike regime statues — what RJ Koehler cleverly calls “urban beautification” — in response to another provocation such as the sinking of the Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo. The Defense Minister later denied the statue threat. (Update | New Focus International has a nice story on the role of statues from March that I had missed.)

So, regime images are serious business in North Korea. Why? I don’t happen to know of a particularly erudite discussion of the role of leadership images in totalitarian states, but it has always seemed to me the purpose of such images is to demonstrate the ubiquity of the state in everyday life and, further, to exclude the possibility of imagining life without the state. The total nature of such an authoritarian state requires the destruction of both the past as well as the future — at least insofar as historical memory or dreams of the future involve life without it.  The Kim Il Sung pins are, I suppose, the most well-known representation of this aspect of totalitarianism.

It is not surprising, then, that the regime would heap lavish praise on a mere traffic warden for such a trivial act as extinguishing a fire near a poster of one Kim or another.  The very triviality of the act — the attentiveness to the most minor aspects of the regime’s well-being — is its grandeur. By contrast, to have taken no notice of the threat to the poster would suggest something less than total devotion to the Kims.  Perish the thought.  If it is possible to live everyday life neglecting the images of the Kims, then perhaps it is possible to live everyday life neglecting the Kims themselves.  And the one thing that a totalitarian regime cannot by definition abide is to be less than total.

The statues of Kim Jong Il in an anorak and the little pins are still absurd, of course, but then again so is the entire idea of totalitarianism. I suspect that fundamental absurdity is why such regimes find humor so threatening.  They can’t afford to start laughing at themselves for fear no one will stop.

This is true everywhere the state seeks to control all aspects of the lives of its citizenry — not just North Korea. Before we conclude that the emphasis on symbols is just another weird North Korean peccadillo and that we’re above such nonsense, it is worth noting how important defacing those symbols can be to people all over the world fed up with oppression.  Take a look at these images and ask yourself whether the Kims might not be onto something when it comes to taking themselves, and their symbols, so seriously.

Images are, as best I can tell: Budapest (1956), Berlin (~1990), someplace in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union (~1989), Beijing (1989), Baghdad (2003), Tripoli (2011). 


  1. SQ (History)

    Hey. This is a pretty deep meditation on politics for a mere nuke nerd.

  2. Anon2 (History)


    Is it just me or do the traffic policewomen all look like the prettiest women they have in North Korea. They are always made up like little toy dolls. It is a bit strange in this observer.

    I have the feeling that the traffic police women are more of a show than anything else. I don’t think they have any traffic in North Korea anyway.

    The rest is the

  3. Anon2 (History)

    Here is a picture showing what the DPRK traffic policewomen in their winter uniforms, all made up.

    It is just weird that they are all so perfect.

    Has to be some kind of model position that only selects the most attractive.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —As a point, maybe the recruitment of the most attractive North Korean women is easy: enough food to keep your family alive, and authority to direct traffic and *report problems* to male traffic cops, who handel the actual problems.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    In the book The Death of Stalin by Georges Bortoli, he gave this strange account: A man in the Soviet Union owned an air rifle. He tore apage out of a magazine, and drew a bulls eye target on one side of it. He shot the target. On the other side was a photo of Stalin. When he was arrested, the only interepretation of the paperwork used in the man’s arrest was attempted assasination.

    This arrest happened sometime before 1953, when Stalin died.

  6. OT (History)

    In my mind, this was exceptionally beatiful piece of propaganda from their usually boring mahcine. After a weary period of tension and bad mood, how about some positive news instead? Pick a pretty girl and make a good story!

  7. Shirley (History)

    Jeffery, I liked how you brought the ‘absurd’ into the realm of ‘reality’ through the comparative examples. Not necessarily novel, but freshly articulated here, and with impact.

    With regard to “Shutting down Kaesong doesn’t scare me. Packing up Grandpa’s bronze would.” You might have seen this already, but wanted to link it for others:

    When we came out with it, it looked ‘absurd’ to many. But your explanations (we need more like it) put it into sharp ‘reality’.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Thank you for posting to link. I’ve updated the post.

  8. Dean (History)

    This is very Monty Python but what if the South invades wearing Kim masks and big Kim portraits mounted on the front of the tanks?

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —-“Heratics! They are profaning Our Holy Symbols!”

      —-Or, “Sqaud One, Grab the portrait from the enemy tanks. Sqaud two, drop a grenade into the enemy tank.”

    • SQ (History)

      That sounds like the old suggestion that Pakistan should defend its cities from nuclear attack with gigantic stockyards.