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September 23, 2017

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Bravery award hints at incident involving N. Korea leader

SEOUL -- The unusual award of a top medal for bravery to a North Korean traffic policewoman has fueled speculation that she might have intervened in an incident that had threatened the life of leader Kim Jong Un.

Some South Korean media reports on Thursday suggested the policewoman, Ri Kyong Sim, had rescued Kim from a traffic accident, while others even speculated about a possible assassination attempt.

The initial announcement that Ri had been given the coveted "Hero of the Republic" award was made in a brief report on May 5 by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Ri had "displayed the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance," KCNA said without elaborating.

The phrase "headquarters of the revolution" is often used to refer to the country's supreme leadership in the person of Kim Jong Un.

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.

But Park Kun-Ha, secretary general of NK Intellectuals Solidarity, a North Korean defector group, said it was "very rare" for such a prestigious award to be handed out to a low-level functionary.

"I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident," Park told AFP.

Speculation that Kim Jong Un was involved in some way was fuelled by hints in state media reports that followed the initial KCNA announcement.

"Comrade Ri's action was not made possible by pure accident, but made possible because she had always harbored this longing for the respected leader day and night," her superior officer told state TV in an interview.

Ri's former teacher said: "She was always such a responsible person ... that explains why she could achieve such a heroic feat for the safety of the brains of our revolution."

State TV showed hundreds of soldiers and traffic police attending the award ceremony, during which Ri wept uncontrollably.

"I couldn't feel more grateful for the mercy shown by our respected leader in awarding me this highest honor," she said.

The hundreds of guests applauded her as she laid a floral tribute before joint statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the current leader's grandfather and father.

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