The Wolf of Pyongyang

How Kim Jong Un Resembles a CEO

Kim Jong Un waves at participants in the Sixth Congress of the Democratic Women's Union of Korea, November 2016. KCNA / Reuters

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

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