You could not find a greater difference between two men than Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il. One was a rock and roll loving playwright who led the Velvet Revolution that tossed Communist control of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot before becoming its president. The other, the heir of one of the world’s most brutal regimes that thought nothing of starving his own people to feed his vast military machine while walling his country off from contact with the outside world to create their own paradise. Somehow the cruel North Korean despot earned the moniker of “Dear Leader,” while the playwright went about his life speaking to the human spirit’s craving to be free. Both died this past weekend.
Titles such as the one that North Korea gave to Kim Jong Il are the product of the propaganda and military machines and are used to reinforce the personality cults that allow them to hold absolute power. Read or watch news reports of anyone who has been to North Korea and they all describe a hermetically sealed country completely cut off from an overly globalized and interconnected world. Short of some undiscovered people living somewhere in the deepest part of the Amazon jungle, there is probably no more remote and isolated group of people than those who live north of the 38th parallel.
Contrast that existence with that of a people and a country literally born out of the geopolitical wreckage of World War I and World War II and in the firm grasp of the Kremlin for decades after. With just enough connections to the West, Czechoslovakia had enough flickers of democratic thought and action to earn the ire of the Soviet Union, which thought nothing of rolling tanks through the streets to keep control. For people such as Vaclav Havel and others like him, those actions would only reinforce their desires to hold fast to their principles of freedom and free will for its citizens. With declarations such as Charter 77, Havel and his peers were able to tell their countrymen and the world what was wrong in their country and what could be made right if they were given a chance to lead themselves into the future. When that chance arrived in 1989, and they could remove the longtime Communist leadership, it was seized and not a bullet was fired upon either political side. I can think of only a handful of such revolutions that were as peaceful or as meaningful to the world. Nearly four years later, the country of Czechoslovakia would peacefully divide into the Czech and Slovakia Republics. Havel again was at the helm and not a shot was fired.
As we go through the next several days and weeks of geopolitical brinksmanship with North Korea and its state funeral for Kim Jong Il, think about the orchestrated pageantry that North Korean cameras will show the world. Then think about the more subdued services that will be held in Prague later this week for a man whose name is all too often overlooked as one of the giants of the 20th Century. Like the two countries they led, the two lives each had and the two legacies they left, they could not be more polar opposite from one another. The difference will probably be best reflected by the lives their people lead after they’re gone. One will go about in controlled regimen with eyes and ears watching every move while the other will be able to debate, cross borders and explore the world around it without fixed bayonets pointing at its backs and chests.
Such are the legacies of a truly “Dear Leader.”