There are no traffic lights in Pyongyang, but defy the orders of the mini-skirted women wardens at your own peril.
In North Korea, where women keep their elbows covered, don’t ride bicycles and play few roles in public life, the traffic wardens at Pyongyang’s main intersections are an anomaly.
Energy shortages in the impoverished and isolated communist state mean the traffic lights remain dark, and with only a trickle of cars along the capital’s broad streets, the lack of traffic signals doesn’t much matter.
'The fantasy figures'
Instead, at the center of each intersection is a painted white circle, and in it a traffic warden in a bright blue uniform of tailored jacket and short skirt, directing cars with an authoritative point of her red and white striped baton.
“They’re the fantasy figures,” said one Western diplomat. “Women in North Korea are usually very subservient but these women say stop, and you have to do it.”
How the women apply for or are assigned the jobs is unclear in the country where everything from what an average apartment looks like to what is sold in the market appears to be a state secret.
“If they want to be traffic women, they can,” said interpreter Yon Ok Ju.
But analysts say they are more likely chosen for their looks and physical fitness as a showpiece for the model capital, the only place in the country most foreigners see.
Despite the society’s conservatism toward women, the role of Kim Jong Suk, the wife of the state’s founder and Eternal President Kim Il Sung, is a key part of the mythology of its revolutionary struggle against the Japanese and Americans.
In the Arirang mass games show, a 100,000-strong display that is part rhythmic gymnastics, part military parade, a scene depicting female guerrillas has thousands of women in mini-skirt uniforms goose-stepping as they wield their bayonets in perfectly synchronized routines.
The nightly performance is being held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
“Female warriors blooming like azaleas,” reads the caption behind them formed by a human wall of children flashing flip-cards to form the words.
But if women’s contribution to the revolution a generation ago was revered, officials are clear on the limits of their role in current political life.
Women as traffic wardens may be welcomed, but Choe Jong Hun, manager of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, was unequivocal about the chances for a female leader.
“It is out of the question,” he said when asked if a woman could succeed leader Kim Jong Il, waving his hands and growing red in the face.
“If you were a man, I’d throw you off the bus.”