The Wolf of Pyongyang: How Kim Jong Un Resembles a CEO

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Western commentators often treat North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un as a joke. In private conversations I have heard U.S. administration officials and military leaders occasionally refer to him as a “fat boy,” a “young playboy,” and a “laughingstock.” Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has even publicly questioned whether he is crazy. Yet calling the North Korean leader names is a mistake, not because it is rude but because it underestimates his abilities. Kim is no buffoon. To treat him like one is to misunderstand the threat posed by North Korea and its leader—an especially grave mistake today, as tensions between Pyongyang and Washington flare up on a regular basis. 

A better way to view Kim is as a new CEO taking over a company—call it North Korea, Inc. Doing so allows observers to bypass discussions of his mental health (and the focus on him as a dictator) and instead to examine his qualities as a leader. In the business world, the role of the CEO is central to any company’s success. An incoming CEO, especially one entering a struggling company, must take control and lead. He must provide his company with a vision and guide its implementation. A new CEO needs to motivate his employees, explain to them where the company is going and why, and regularize processes of performance and evaluation so that expectations are clear. He needs to do this while also culling the ranks and eliminating dead weight and petty factionalism in the ranks of middle management. An effective leader identifies the malcontents, fires, sidelines, or motivates them, and rewards and promotes those who share his agenda and can move his vision forward. In short, a good CEO is able to get everybody marching in the same direction.

These are precisely the steps that Kim is taking. Kim has survived six years as leader of North Korea while instituting a clear personal vision for the country’s direction. He is apparently unthreatened by any internal challenges to his rule, and indeed looks to be comfortably in charge in Pyongyang. The North Korean government shows no signs of collapsing and seems more stable now than under his father, Kim Jong Il. The debate about whether Kim is rational is harmful to U.S. foreign-policy making because it diverts outsiders from addressing the real issues with North Korea—its active nuclear weapons program and horrific human rights abuses—and obfuscates Kim’s proven ability to lead his country down a path that external pressure has been powerless to weaken. Viewing Kim as CEO, rather than as an ordinary political leader, also emphasizes the non-political aspects of his rule—what leaders in any organization must do to create expectations and stability. By making economic development a key element of state ideology, Kim has signaled a break from the past.

NORTH KOREA, INC.

Perhaps the most important thing that a new CEO must do is to articulate a bold and clear vision that serves as a metric and motivator for the rest of the firm. Kim’s vision for North Korea is clearly articulated in the byungjin line. Adopted by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee in April 2013, byungjin calls for the simultaneous development of North Korea’s economy and its nuclear weapons, replacing the so-called military-first doctrine of Kim Jong Il. By making economic development a key element of state ideology, Kim has signaled a break from the past. Under Kim Jong Il and his predecessor, Kim Il Sung, North Korean propaganda emphasized the people’s strength in the face of adversity and willingness to suffer for the sake of their country. This positive spin on hardship justified an enormous range of practices, from a campaign pressing North Koreans to eat two meals per day in 1991, when the country was struck by famine, to various worker mobilization campaigns. Kim Il Sung had called for North Koreans to sacrifice for the sake of the country as far back as the Chollima campaigns of the 1950s, in which ordinary North Koreans were drafted into work units for mass construction and infrastructure projects; people were urged to “donate” their labor and work 18-hour days, and were even required to time their bathroom breaks. 

Kim Jong Un, by contrast, has said that North Koreans “should no longer be hungry.” Typical of this approach is a speech from 2015:

The most important task facing us today is to improve the people’s standard of living at an earlier date. Our people have so far waged an intense struggle to build socialism … they have never enjoyed a plentiful life to their heart’s content. Whenever I am reminded of my failure to provide a rich life to these laudable people, who, in spite of their difficult living conditions, have firmly trusted and followed only our Party and remained faithful to their pure sense of moral obligation to the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, I cannot get sleep…. We should provide our people, who have entrusted their all to the Party and stood by it in braving all manner of trials and hardships together with the Party, with the most abundant and happiest life in the world. 

This focus on material comfort instead of selfless sacrifice marks a clear change in tone from the past. And, although this is rhetoric, it is consequential nonetheless—Kim cannot gesture at economic improvement without raising expectations among those from the top of the party to the bottom of the country’s social hierarchy. Byungjin does not mean that Kim has embarked on wholesale economic reforms—far from it. But it does mean that Kim has explicitly linked his legitimacy to his ability to make good on the promise of both economic development and the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Under his direction, North Korea is moving forward on both. Given the West’s near-exclusive focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs it is easy to overlook its economic initiatives. Kim has increased the autonomy granted to state-owned factories over what they produce and how they find suppliers and customers, and North Korean farm workers can now sell any their surplus once they meet government quotas. Western analysis of a parade held on April 15, however, was almost solely concerned with assessing the military hardware on display. Widely overlooked was the fact that in the two-and-a-half-hour-long parade, the military segment lasted for only twenty minutes. The other two hours emphasized economic successes, such as the opening of new shopping districts and new government-approved markets (Jangmadang), as well as environmental challenges and simple celebrations of the Kim family. When Kim was seen standing on a balcony to review the parade, standing either side of him were Hwang Pyong So, vice marshall of the Korean People’s Army, and Pak Pong Ju, premier of North Korea and most important official in charge of the economy. 

Kim Jong Un visits a foodstuff factory in Pyongyang, January 2016.
KCNA / Reuters Kim Jong Un visits a foodstuff factory in Pyongyang, January 2016. 

Indeed, a week before the April parade, the Kim government told some 200 foreign journalists to wake up at 5 AM and leave their cellphones and laptops in their hotel rooms. Their minders put them on buses and, after a two-hour security check, dropped them off just past the Chinese embassy in downtown Pyongyang. Given the security, the secrecy, and the tensions with the United States, reporters had originally guessed that they might be preparing to see a nuclear test or a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Instead, they were shown to Ryomyong Street, a new luxury housing and shopping district, proudly referred to by state media as “green” and “energy efficient.” The meaning of the display could not be more clear: Kim was emphasizing how important business, the economy, and quality of life (at least in Pyongyang) is to his vision. As Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju said in a speech at the event, “The completion of this street is more powerful than 100 nuclear warheads.” 

A NEW NORMAL

If Kim, as a young CEO, has articulated a new vision for North Korea, Inc., so too has he dramatically changed the corporate culture in order to implement it. When Kim took power in December 2011, so little was known about him that even his age was indeterminate. But today, he has proved that he has the skills of a much more experienced leader. Kim has begun to create predictability and regularity in the North Korean government. He has created processes and clarified priorities, most importantly by identifying the byungjin line. And he has dealt with middle management, firing some top officials, rewarding some, and moving others around. In doing so, he has improved his country’s ability to pursue and achieve his goals. If Kim has articulated a new vision for North Korea, Inc., so too has he dramatically changed the corporate culture in order to implement it.

One of the ways that Kim has begun to change his government’s culture is by regularizing its bureaucratic processes. Kim has instituted reforms to expand the scope of the private economy and attempt to rein in military expenditures, for example. But a CEO’s leadership is perhaps more important in large, symbolic actions. Under Kim Jong Il, there were no regular party meetings or New Year’s Day speeches, and other organizational practices fell into disuse. Before May 2016, when Kim Jong Un held the Seventh Party Congress, the WPK had gone 36 years since its last official meeting, the Sixth Party Congress in 1980—this despite party rules stipulating that a congress be held every four years. He has also suggested the Eighth Congress would be held in 2020, returning the WPK to its mandated schedule. All of this appears aimed at creating more consistency, and systematized, regularized bureaucracy.

In addition to the congresses, Kim has renewed the tradition of giving an annual New Year’s Day speech. Kim’s first speech, on January 1, 2013, was the first since his grandfather’s final address in 1994. Significantly, Kim gave the speech from the KWP Central Committee building, emphasizing that he intends to cement the party’s preeminence over other institutions. And at the Seventh Party Congress, Kim announced the first five-year plan since the early 1980s. The economist and North Korea watcher Rüdiger Frank calls this suite of changes a “new normal,” one that is reviving many elements of Kim Il Sung’s rule.

Kim has also been hard at work reshaping his senior staff. Due to the opacity of North Korean politics, it can be difficult for outside observers both to follow Kim’s personnel moves and to interpret their meaning—in December 2013, the purge and execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, then believed to be the second most powerful man in North Korea, prompted wide speculation that Kim was in the midst of massive power struggle and that his position was weak. But since then Kim has consolidated his power, and the purge now looks to have been a dramatic show of force. In other cases, supposedly purged officials have shown up later in powerful positions. Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, thought to have been purged in October 2015, reappeared in official photographs in January 2016. Ri Yong Gil, the former army chief of staff, was even reported to have been executed in February 2016 before appearing at the Seventh Party Congress a few months later to receive his four-star generalship. 

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un waves during a WPK party conference in Pyongyang, April 2012.
KCNA / Reuters Kim Jong Un waves during a WPK party conference in Pyongyang, April 2012. 

Indeed, there may be no better evidence of how badly outside observers have misunderstood Kim’s moves than the number of supposed purges that have later turned out to be nothing of the sort. Given the opacity of North Korea’s bureaucracy, it is no surprise that Westerners have been guilty of overinterpretation. But if one views Kim as a CEO taking over a company, it is no surprise that there is so much staff turnover. Kim is likely finding people he can work with, trying them out in different positions, and slowly consolidating his own senior executive team. Like a good corporate executive, he is identifying leaders, culling middle management, and instituting regular institutional processes throughout the government.

There are, of course, multiple reasons for Kim’s moves—most important, that Kim is ensuring his own survival and eliminating enemies. But to view his moves solely as those of a dictator consolidating his power is to overlook how important it is for any leader to find an executive team he trusts and can work with. By understanding personnel changes first as an outcome of internal power struggles, outsiders are often led to embarrassing overreactions about alleged purges.

IT'S NO JOKE

North Korea’s leader seems secure in his own power and unintimidated by outside threats. Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States set off an unprecedented flurry of commentary about whether Washington and Pyongyang were close to war, and has continued essentially unabated through the first six months of Trump’s administration. But North Korea, which has spent seven decades under threat from the United States, seemed quite comfortable with Trump’s saber-rattling. Indeed, Washington is playing into Kim’s hands, justifying his byungjin line with its aggressive rhetoric and equal emphasis on nuclear weapons as well as economic development.

There is also good evidence that, despite international sanctions on North Korea and Pyongyang’s resistance to Chinese-style market reform, the country’s economy has stabilized and is even growing. Although any measures should be used with caution, the Bank of Korea claims that North Korea’s economy grew 3.9 percent in 2016, the fastest rate since 1999. The famine has ended and no imminent crisis looms. Reforms, halting as they are, continue to move forward. According to the research group Beyond Parallel, North Korean households now earn nearly 75 percent of their income from markets. Foreign trade is increasing, too: India is now North Korea’s third-largest trade partner, and Russian-North Korean trade grew 73 percent in the first two months of 2017. Some of this is a result of events and decisions taken before Kim became leader in North Korea, but the point remains that Kim is continuing down a path of economic reform as a central element of his leadership vision. 

Viewing North Korea as a joke ignores the reality of Kim’s tenure. Judging him as a CEO provides a much more accurate way to assess his leadership style, and by that measure he seems to be firmly in control, setting a vision and surrounding himself with the people he needs to succeed. There is recurrent speculation in the West both about whether Kim Jong Un himself is a weak dictator clinging to power and whether his regime is on the brink of collapse. Viewed as a CEO, however, Kim does not appear threatened, and neither does his government. Indeed, both appear increasingly stable. Kim’s rule is comprehensive and addresses issues beyond the U.S. threat to North Korean security, and he seems to be making progress on the economic aspects of his vision. This progress, moreover, has occurred despite tremendous external pressure put on the country. The outside world is looking at a long relationship with Kim Jong Un and North Korea—it should at least try to understand him. 

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