A Tale of Two Revolutionaries

The Antithetical Legacies of Václav Havel and Kim Jong-Il

On December 18, 2011, history was provided with an odd coincidence that invites further reflection — the simultaneous deaths of Václav Havel, a dissident playwright, essayist, and poet who became the first President of the Czech Republic, and Kim Jong-Il, the former Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Though their personal histories, political careers, and legacies are profoundly different, both men were self-proclaimed revolutionaries operating in the shadow of the former Soviet Union who left an indelible mark on their respective nations.  Their diametrically opposed approaches to governance offer several lessons on leadership in times of harrowing political transition.

Despite his privileged upbringing as the son of wealthy entrepreneurs and government ministers, Havel and his family were sequestrated and discriminated against as members of the “politically dangerous” class when the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948.  His father was exiled from Prague for a time, and Václav was forced to leave school at age 15.  After serving as a laboratory assistant and a minesweeper in the engineer corps, he became an acclaimed absurdist playwright, dealing especially with politically provocative themes.

After the brutal repression of the Prague Spring by the Soviets in 1968 he was banned from the theater and turned to full-time political activism, authoring the Charter 77 manifesto that criticized the Communist regime’s human rights abuses and founding the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted.  He was an instrumental founder of reformist movements during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 including the Civic Forum, the entity that called for the final dismissal of top officials and comprehensive political reform.  At the conclusion of the non-violent uprising, Havel was called to the presidency by posters plastered in Wenceslas Square with the slogan “Havel na Hrad!” (“Havel to the Castle!”), a post he accepted with humility.  As president, Havel oversaw the peaceful dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the country’s division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Though not without controversy, on his death Havel was hailed as “a great European” by Angela Merkel (the current Chancellor of Germany) and “one of the great figures of the 20th century” by Madeleine Albright (a former US Secretary of State).  James Pontuso, one of Havel’s biographers, credited the former president with “extraordinary determination, originality, irony, and humor” and attributed his greatness to exemplifying “the highest and therefore the most difficult kind of moral behavior.”

Havel’s 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless, begins with the satirical words: “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called dissent.”  He continues to condemn pure ideology as a way of relating to the world, warning that it “offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”  Havel was the embodiment of the nonconformist intellectual — a man for whom no authority was sacred and no price was too high to pay for the maintenance of his conscience.  His unpresumptuous leadership style is manifest in one of his most famous assertions: “As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.”

Of course, on the Soviet Union’s eastern frontier, Kim Jong-Il’s cult of personality presented the Dear Leader as precisely the “source of the highest meaning in the world” and the “measure of everything.”  According to the Associated Press, North Korean legend states that Kim Jong-Il was born on Mount Paekdu in 1942, a birth heralded in the heavens by the appearance of a double rainbow and a brilliant new star.  Soviet records report that he was actually born in Siberia, 1941, but banal reality never stood in the way of Kim Jong-Il’s sordid 17-year rule.  In stark contrast to Havel’s reluctant ascent to the presidency, Kim Jong-Il was groomed by his father for a political career predicated on monopolizing control of every branch of government.  On his death, the Dear Leader was all at once the General Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and Supreme Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, the fourth largest standing army in the world.

In recognition that Chinese-style reform of the Communist regime would be tantamount to political suicide (due to North Korea’s inevitable, unfavorable comparison with living conditions in South Korea), Kim Jong-Il presided over one of the most backward, oppressive dictatorships in modern history.  The State Department reports human rights abuses including “arbitrary and lengthy imprisonment, torture and degrading treatment, poor prison conditions including starvation, forced labor, public executions, prohibitions or severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, movement, assembly, religion, and privacy, denial of the right of citizens to change their government, and suppression of worker’s rights.”

North Korea is ranked second to last on the World Press Freedom Index (better only than Eritrea).  In the early 1990s, despite a famine that ultimately killed between 900,000 and 2.4 million people, Kim Jong-Il pursued a costly and ruinous nuclear weapons program in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The first sentence of his obituary in the New York Times says it all: “Kim Jong Il presided with an iron hand over a country he kept on the edge of starvation and collapse, fostering perhaps the last personality cult in the Communist world even as he banished citizens deemed disloyal to gulags or sent assassins after defectors.”  History will not be kind to the Dear Leader.

Individuals do not, and cannot, entirely shape the history of a nation — and yet, Václav Havel and Kim Jong-Il came about as close as anyone ever will, for better or worse.  In times of political transition, a nation’s new institutions are malleable, inviting either innovation or exploitation.  Havel guided Czechoslovakia from the depths of cold-blooded Communism and Soviet oppression to a nonviolent revolution and democracy, inspiring the rest of Eastern Europe to follow his superb example.  Kim Jong-Il gained a stranglehold on power in a political entity that remains a twisted relic of the Cold War, subjecting his people to unimaginable suffering and drawing the ire of the international community.

Let us only hope that the next leaders of Egypt, Libya, and Syria in their time of transition are of the Havel variety.


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