Live Like a Kim: The Most Bizarre Leadership Decisions in North Korean History

By James O Malley on at

By now you’ve probably heard the news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has apparently executed his defence minister using an anti-aircraft gun. Distressingly, though this sounds crazy, it isn’t exactly out of the ordinary for the so-called Hermit Kingdom. Kim is perhaps the world’s worst boss, having learned his trade from his dad and grandad – former North Korean leaders Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung who have ruled the secretive state since it was established in 1945.

Here’s some of the most comically evil and downright dreadful decisions that they’ve made, which will make your old bosses seem like geniuses. And I write this as someone who in a former job had an hour-long meeting with his boss to discuss our “Pinterest strategy”, which resulted in no actual strategy being decided.

Football Coaching

Kim Jong-il – who was leader until he died in 2011 – took a rather hands-on approach to managing North Korea’s football team. According to Free Korea, the team coach would claim that the Dear Leader would regularly communicate with him to offer tactical advice using an ‘invisible phone’, which Kim himself had invented (seriously).

Unfortunately, it seems Kim’s no-doubt brilliant advice was not followed – as during the 2010 World Cup North Korea took the unprecedented step of showing the country’s game with Portugal live, in which it proceeded to get thumped by 7-nil.

The consequences of this for the team were not good. When they arrived back in DPRK after losing all three group games, they were subjected to a six hour public shaming in Pyongyang’s Palace of Culture, in front of 400 people. Though this is still better than what previous football teams from previous years have received after losing, which tended to be a one-way trip to the labour camp.

Sadly Kim Jong-un has continued with this motivational technique, as London 2012 Olympic athletes reportedly risked the gulags too.

Astrelok /

Goats are the Answer to Everything

In the 1990s North Korea faced massive famine due to the mismanagement of the country’s economy. The “Arduous March”, as the period became known, was responsible for (depending on who you ask) anywhere between 250,000 and 3,500,000 deaths; of the people remaining many were forced to live on what is euphemistically called “Alternative” sources of food, such as tree bark. Seriously.

Kim Jong-il thought he’d hit upon the solution when he launched a campaign to encourage people to breed goats. The logic must have been fairly compelling for a regime that didn’t dare offer reform or ask for outside help. Goats provide milk and meat, and can survive in mountain terrain, which is is great news for a country that doesn’t have any green fields for cows to graze in.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out the way it was planned. As Victor Cha notes in The Impossible State, the immediate consequence was that the goat population doubled “overnight”, and had tripled within two years. While this provided a short-term answer, it screwed Best Korea for the long term, as goats will eat anything – meaning in short order they had stripped every last blade of grass and shrub from everywhere. This meant that the North Korean land was even more vulnerable to monsoons “of Biblical proportions”,which further wiped out any remaining arable land and even caused coal mines to flood. So no electricity, either.

Its the sort of monumental fuck-up that makes Sega’s Dreamcast look like a roaring success.

Stupid Megaprojects

If you’re a politician under pressure, and want to do something that makes it look like you’re really doing something, then the best way to do it is by splashing cash you don’t have on an expensive boondoggle. It is the reason why London now has a cable car line.

And like all bad managers, Kim Jong-il – who was by then in day-to-day control of North Korea (he wouldn’t officially take over until his father’s death in 1994) – took this to extremes.

Jealous of the Seoul Olympics focusing the eyes of the world to the North’s hated rival in 1988, Kim ordered DPRK to get building some monstrous projects. According to Victor Cha, an attempt to build a hydrothermal power station at T’aech’ŏn “sought to defy Earth’s natural forces” by digging a tunnel in an attempt to increase river capacity, thus increasing the potential power generated by the plant. It appears that it didn’t work out too well, as they later built a (super controversial) nuclear power station instead.

Similarly, $5 billion was pissed away when DPRK built a massive new complex to produce a synthetic vinylon fibre for use in clothes. The fibre in North Korea is known as the “Juche Fibre”, named after Kim Il-sung’s ideology, and is seen as a point of pride despite being objectively worse than other materials – because it can’t hold dye and is uncomfortable to wear. Unfortunately for the middle Kim, the 250 factories that were being readied in the complex and 52,000 tonnes of equipment ended up going unused, because North Korea couldn’t master the creation of ammonia, which is required in the production process on such a large scale. Presumably someone would have said something before hand, if it wouldn’t have resulted in them being never seen again.

North Korean troopsAstrelok /

Offering Terrible Advice

North Korean leaders aren’t like normal politicians. The propaganda machine in the North Korean state builds them up to be less like slightly pudgy men and more like gods. One of the ways in which this mythos is created is through tales in the highly controlled media of how the so-called Respected Leader will tour factories and offer “on-the-spot guidance”, and thus showing himself to be an expert in everything from rearing animals to whatever the hell this is.

You think you’ve seen enough of George Osborne wandering around in a hi-vis jacket over the course of the election campaign – compared to Kim he’s a filthy casual.

Unfortunately though, it turns out that Kim and his predecessors are not great experts, and instead this guidance - which must be followed – is invariably terrible.

To quote Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy:

“One day he would decree that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea’s food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another.”

So is it any wonder that North Korea is in the state it is in?

David Brent, all is Forgiven

So all in all, it really does seem as though North Korea is a terrible place to live – thanks in large part to the poor management skills of the Kim family. We can only really hope that at some point soon there will be a change of direction.

In the meantime, if you’d like some super-grim reading, check out the books mentioned above, and Amnesty International offers some good information too.