Dennis Rodman, 1984-like authoritarian states, bad haircuts, and nuclear weapons. There’s only one place that has all of these in common: North Korea. For generations now, North Korea has been something of a rogue state — a nation led by an authoritarian dictator, with power handed down from father to son. We’re now in the third generation of such an arrangement, and the man in charge, Kim Jong Un, is looking like even more of a wild card than his father or grandfather ever were.
It’s because of the nukes that North Korea is so scary. And now, with clear and evident progress on its nuclear program, North Korea is threatening to attack neighboring countries South Korea and Japan and even lob missiles toward the United States. It’s a frightening situation and one that doesn’t have an easy solution. What do you do when you have an unhinged young man with a heavy arsenal and billions of dollars at his disposal?
For some, like China, the answer is to keep him fat and happy. Sell North Korea provisions, and buy its resources. The country does have money — it’s just concentrated in the supreme leader’s accounts.
What, exactly, does Kim Jong Un do with all that money?
For America’s billionaires, being rich typically leads to a life of luxury and relaxation. They buy yachts and private islands and spend their time golfing. Funny enough, this is what Kim Jong Un does, as well (and we’ll get to that), but he also needs to use his money to ensure that he stays in power. That means buying military hardware and paying assassins to track down family members.
It sounds like Game of Thrones, but it’s very real. And Kim Jong Un is essentially a real-life Joffrey. How much money does our version of Joffrey have, and what does he spend it on? Let’s take a closer look at the world’s most famous dictator.
Next: The supreme leader’s net worth
Kim Jong Un: Net worth
- Recent estimates put Kim Jong Un’s wealth at roughly $5 billion.
It’s hard to say just how much Kim Jong Un has at his disposal. But most estimates put the figure at right around $5 billion. Considering how little his fellow countrymen earn in a given year (which we’ll get to in a minute), North Korea’s supreme leader might as well live on another planet with that type of money. In fact, he does in a way. He lives a life of luxury that rivals that of any other wealthy person in the United States or Asia while almost every other North Korean fights for scraps.
Next: Kim Jong Un comes from a line of rich rulers, including his father and grandfather.
- The family’s fortune was accrued under Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s rules between 1948 and 2011.
Before he became supreme leader, Kim Jong Un watched as his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung raised the family’s fortune. Though their assets are stashed in different places and forms around the world, by leading the country the family has become extraordinarily wealthy. The real question, of course, is this: How did they do it? The quick and easy answer is through a number of illicit channels and trading with one other country: China. But we’ll get into the more illicit stuff.
Next: How does North Korea’s first family keep the money flowing in?
Replenishing the coffers
- How does the regime make its money? Extraction, extortion, and slavery.
Because North Korea has been blacklisted and sanctioned nearly into oblivion, it has few trading partners. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely cut off. North Korea earns the bulk of its money through the sale of coal to neighboring China. Aside from that, however, the country deals in more illicit channels. Some of the ways in which North Korea pads its coffers are through weapons sales, drug manufacturing and sales, cyber attacks, and even slavery or forced labor.
Next: How Kim Jong Un spends all of that money.
Where it all goes
- It mostly goes to private islands, golf courses, homes, and imported liquor.
While most of the country continues to resemble an agrarian 19th-century serfdom, Kim Jong Un lives a life of luxury. He spends money on private jets, private islands, golf courses, and a slew of houses, and he imports the finest liquors and cheeses. There are also the yachts and cars and the regime’s spending on luxury resorts. But a lot of that money also goes toward building the nation’s military and nuclear arsenal — which the supreme leader views as an insurance policy against a coup and a way to cement his power.
Next: How do Kim Jong Un’s lavish lifestyle and vast wealth compare to an average North Korean?
How his wealth compares to the average in North Korea
- Average income in North Korea is between $1,000 and $2,000 per year.
This is the most striking figure you’ll read today: The average North Korean only earns between $1,000 and $2,000 per year. A handful earn more than that, but the point is the vast majority of the country is very poor. Meanwhile, the leader has a stockpile of $5 billion and spends his time ordering expensive cheese. Some of the luckiest North Koreans have jobs building products for South Korean companies and earn a whopping $62 per month, according to NPR.
Next: Where does the leader’s wealth rank among other world leaders?
How it compares internationally
- Kim Jong Un’s $5 billion puts him in the upper echelon of world leaders.
Where does that $5 billion fortune put Kim Jong Un among wealthy world leaders? Pretty high up the list actually. In fact, it’s estimated that the supreme leader is actually worth more than President Donald Trump. But because that wealth is tied up in different holdings and is spread across the world, nobody knows for sure. We do know North Korea’s leader is near the top when it comes to rich politicians but trails Russia’s Vladimir Putin by a wide gap. Unofficially, Putin is worth $200 billion or so.
Next: We’ll finish up with a look at just how hard it is to keep all that money, especially for several generations.
Hanging on to it all
- You can place a bet on when Kim Jong Un will cease to be North Korea’s leader. 2017’s odds? 14/1.
The one thing about having all that money in a nation that’s incredibly poor? People will come for it sooner or later. Just look at what happened to Louis XVI during the French Revolution, for example. Or, even more recently, there was the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who had an estimated net worth of $200 billion as the leader of Libya. Just a few years ago, he was overthrown, dragged into the streets, and beaten to death.
Obviously, that’s a fate Kim Jong Un would like to avoid, which explains why he spends so much on military hardware, is quickly building up his nuclear stockpile and technology, and is so secretive. We know his reign will come to an end at some point, but how it happens is the question that should be giving everyone an anxiety attack.