The Wolf of Pyongyang
How Kim Jong Un Resembles a CEO
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 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.Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com