Kim Jong-Il: An Examination of an Example of a Bad Leader

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Effective leaders are rare in today's world. Although there are many popular leaders in the world who are, in fact, good leaders, but with unjust causes, Kim Jong-Il is a rare example of a leader who is both ineffective but also morally stagnant. The reason for this is because he fails the five main criteria for what makes a good leader, which will be examined individually. The main point being that Kim Jong-Il, while a popular leader, fails to meet these criteria, and, subsequently, fails as a leader.

The first criteria for a good leader are that they are able to model the way an organization will perform its goals and set certain standards to live up to. Kim Jong-Il failed on many levels in that regard. For example, in 1994, North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il, signed what is called an "Agreed Framework" whose purpose was to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons program (Breen, 2012). In exchange, the United States was to build two nuclear reactors to help with energy production. However, eight years after the fact, Kim Jong-Il admitted that his country had been producing weapons long after the 1994 agreement. Despite Kim Jong-Il’s excuses, this act caused many to turn against him, including his own people, and shows that a leader must be goal-oriented and stick with his decisions, even if those decisions are unpopular. Kim Jong-Il failed to do that. In addition, Kim Jong-Il continued to perform nuclear testing even after admitting that he had not honored the 1994 agreement, which angered many people both foreign and domestic even further, sparking a worldwide outrage at North Korea. This represents a substantial failure on his part as a leader because he is acting as a role model for not just North Korea's own citizens, but for the rest of the world as well. By redacting his own agreements and generally being two-timing and untrustworthy, it puts North Korea in a negative light, and makes other countries reluctant to trust them. This puts the country under more strain and is the mark of a bad leader when their own country becomes untrustworthy because of him.

The second core tenant of a good leader is to inspire and share a vision with the leader's people. Once again, Kim Jong-Il failed in this regard as well. The most basic component of sharing a vision with one's people is to ensure that the leader and the people share the same vision. Unfortunately, this was not the case with North Korea. Most notably, Kim Jong-Il felt that North Korea was superior in every way to South Korea, and he wanted his own people to share this vision, whether they wanted to or not (Breen, 2012). The key to having a likeable leader is for the vision that they have to be shared by the people willingly. If they are coerced or otherwise forced against their will to believe a leader, then the leader himself is ultimately pointless, since his acceptance or rejection by the citizens is meaningless. During his reign, Kim Jong-Il constantly put into a positive light his own country, painting them as the ones who took on a superpower (the United States, in this case) while the other countries around them, with the exception of South Korea, competed amongst themselves to provide aid to them. Not only was this a fabrication, it was a bad fabrication, and most North Koreans knew it. This action was one of many that caused the North Korean people to ultimately lose their faith in the country, especially its leadership and communication. At one point, Kim Jong-Il’s vision became so twisted that his face was not allowed to be shown in South Korea for fear that it would spark an outrage (Breen, 2012). It is not the goal of a leader's vision to be popular, but when a leader's vision causes the country to be almost universally reviled, especially by its closest neighbors, it is time for the leader to rethink their strategy and approach to foreign affairs, and Kim Jong-Il failed to do that, and it ended up costing his country in the long run.

The third criteria for a successful leader are to spur others to action. Oftentimes, this is done by giving the citizens of the leader's country a real goal to look forward to and work towards. Kim Jong-Il fails at this as well. At one-point, North Korea was identified as a communist country, which is bad enough, but they dropped that label and are instead now considered a totalitarian monarchy, ruled by the Kim Il Sung line (Breen, 2012). The problem here is that this political system does not lend itself to great leadership, since Kim Jong-Il had no fear of being impeached or anything of the sort. As a result, he ruled cruelly, and the only motivation he could give his citizens is that they would not be killed or otherwise punished if they performed their respective roles within the country. Obviously, this approach is not conducive to the leadership experience, and, as a result, morale in North Korea was, and continues to be, extremely low, with many citizens wanting to leave but being unable to do so.

The fourth criteria for good leadership are to encourage the hearts of its citizens. Essentially, this means the leader must be a relatable and likeable character that its citizens can believe in and aspire to. Kim Jong-Il is none of these things, and, in fact, acted in such a way as to cause his own people to revile him by means that could have been easily avoided. For example, when his own country was in danger of starving to death, due to extreme flooding, likely caused by poor land management, Kim Jong-Il, rather than adopting some sort of measure to keep his citizens fed, instead adopted what is called a "Military-First" policy (Scobell, 2006). Despite claims that this measure actually helped the country grow since its implementation, North Korea still relies largely on foreign aid for food, as evidenced by its frequent use of nuclear threats in order to acquire food from countries like the United States. Aside from all of the political and economic damage these actions cost North Korea, they also affected him as a leader. These actions caused his citizens to question his leadership, while also losing their support and morale; two key commodities that any leader requires to be successful (Scobell, 2006).

The final criteria for a successful leader are a desire to challenge and, if necessary, change the established process. This is oftentimes done by examining the country or whatever the leader is ruling, and making changes if necessary, to better the country and its people. Kim Jong-Il not only failed to do this; he effectively made his country far worse due to his poor leadership. Due to the fact that North Korea is a totalitarian monarchy, Kim Jong-Il would likely have considered any real change to be a disservice to his father. North Korea also thrives by exploiting its people, and Kim Jong-Il was all too happy to do this while not changing anything with his struggling nation. The prevailing notion among government sources outside North Korea is that people only appeared to support his decisions out of fear of punishment for failing to go along with every decision he made (Scobell, 2006). If Kim Jong-Il were a good leader, these provisions would not have to be instituted, but since he is a bad leader, and North Korea knows it, they have no choice but to establish a cult of personality of sorts around him.

A good leader is different than a successful leader. Many leaders in history were successful, but still bad leaders, with Kim Jong-Il being a prime example of that. He was a ruler, but an unfair and unjust one, who garnered the hate of virtually everyone around him, yet denied anyone the right to complain. He was totalitarian in both philosophy and practice, and dissenting opinions to his rule were quashed instantly. Due to his arrogance, lack of understanding, and overall poor and short-sighted decision-making, North Korea suffered a great deal throughout his rule. He has become infamous for his poor leadership, and it is easy to see the reason why. Kim Jong-Il is a textbook example of a bad leader, and would-be leaders would do well to use his poor performance as a leader as an example of what not to do in order to be a successful leader.


Breen, M. (2012). Kim Jong-Il Revised and Updated: Kim Jong-Il: North Koreas Dear Leader. p.35-38, 125, 12-15.

Scobell, A. (2006). Kim Jong-Il and North Korea: the leader and the system. Strategic Studies Institute. 3-7, 26-27,33