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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Freedom Fighter and the Farce

This past Sunday, we learned of the deaths of two world leaders. Former Czech president Václav Havel died in Vlčice at age 75, and Korean Central Television reported that Kim Jong-il had died of a massive heart attack Saturday morning.

It seems fitting to do a compare-and-contrast piece on the lives and legacies of these two men; one a Communist dictator, the other a dissident who rebelled against Communism and spent many years in jail. While one made human rights a focal point of his career and even chaired the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, the other presided over a government that Human Rights Watch called "among the world's most repressive". The similarities between the two leaders extend far beyond their status as heads of state, however. Both emerged as major players on the world political stage in the late 20th Century, and both led storied personal lives, the details of which we may never be sure of. Perhaps most noteworthy is that both men were born into powerful families.

Havel was born in Prague in 1936. His father, Václav Maria Havel, was a wealthy entrepreneur who owned various high-dollar real estate properties throughout Bohemia. Havel's mother, Božena Vavrečková, was the daughter of an ambassador and well-known journalist. The Havel family was closely connected with the Czech cultural and political scene, and it was Bozena herself who encouraged young Václav to convene his first literary circle. Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim, according to Soviet records, in the small Russian village of Vyatskoye in 1941. His father, Kim Il-sung, commanded the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade, made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.

1948 proved a pivotal year in the lives of both men and their families (as well as millions of other people). In February, the Soviet-backed Communist Party of Czechoslovakia took over the Czechoslovakian government. Havel's family holdings were seized by the authorities. Then, on May 1, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was officially founded. Kim Il-sung was installed as prime minister September 9th.

While Kim purportedly composed six operas in two years and enjoyed staging elaborate musicals, Havel actually wrote more than 20 plays, including The Garden Party (1960), The Memorandum (1965) and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), all of which were performed at the famous Theatre on the Balustrades ("Divadlo Na zábradlí") in Prague. "The cultural tradition prevalent in his family focussed Havel's attention on humanistic values of Czech culture which were suppressed in the fifties," according to the former president's official biography on the Prague Castle web site. He also wrote countless essays and worked as a magazine editor.

Following the Soviet invasion and crackdown in 1968, the government banned Havel's plays and sent him to work at a brewery. Not even the rank fumes of totalitarian swill could stifle his prosaic propensity, however. He was the principal author of Charta 77, a kind of dissident manifesto that gave rise to an anti-Communist movement among a section of Czechoslovak citizens.

While Havel was repeatedly being jailed and released by the Communist government, Kim Il-sung was grooming his son as the heir apparent to his all-powerful position. In the 1970s, Kim Jong-Il moved quickly through the ranks of the Korean Workers Party (Communist) hierarchy, eventually becoming a member of the Central Committee, the Military Commission, and the politburo. He assumed the title "Dear Leader" (친애하는 지도자) and was made a member of the Seventh Supreme People's Assembly (whatever that was) in February 1982.

If there was a singular event that marked the death knell of Communism as a major statist force/threat, then it was probably the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Eight days later, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. A series of popular, largely nonviolent demonstrations followed, and by November 20th the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swelled from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. A two-hour, nationwide general strike was successfully held one week later. The following day, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state.

At the center of this so-called Velvet Revolution was Václav Havel, who along with other members of the Charter 77 dissident movement founded Civic Forum (not to be confused with the online symposium for Honda Civic owners/drivers). After Pres. Gustáv Husák resigned on December 10, Havel was elected president.

According to at least one Havel biographer, it was at this pivotal time that Havel's Machiavellian side emerged. Alexander Dubček, the one-time leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia whose attempted liberalization was crushed in 1968, looked to be the likely choice to take over as president during this transitional period, but Havel deftly ushered him aside and was reelected in 1990, when what was then Czechoslovakia held its first free elections. Dubček had to settle for being Speaker of the Federal Assembly. Compare this to Kim's early days on the KWP Central Committee; he reportedly wrested the post of party organization secretary from his uncle in September 1973 and used his position as head of the Organisation & Guidance Department to purge the KWP of those not sufficiently loyal to his father. He became Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army in 1991.

Havel lost the presidency in 1992, shortly before his country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The following January, he was elected the first President of the Czech Republic. That same year, Kim Jong-il assumed the role of Chairman of the National Defence Commission in North Korea. After his father's death in 1994, Kim succeeded him as supreme leader of the God-forsaken Communist state. In 1997, he officially took over as both Chairman of the Military Commission and General Secretary of the WPK.

As president of the Czech Republic, Havel led his country into the OECD and NATO and laid the groundwork for its 2004 accession to the European Union. He left office in 2003, the same year that North Korea began participating in six-party talks sponsored by China that went absolutely nowhere. At the very least, Kim Jong-il can tout his country's acquisition of "the bomb" as an achievement during his tenure.

The contrast is striking: one man led a government that propogated fantastic tales of its leader's musical talent, athletic prowess and influence in the fashion world, the other actually lived an incredible life, accomplishing feats that lesser men could not have.

Havel and Kim were both powerful men during their lifetimes, and now they are no more. But, while one leaves behind a legacy of leadership marked by courage in the face of oppression by a brutal Communist regime and shepherding his country through a peaceful transition from a Soviet-dominated police state to a democratic republic, the other will be remembered as an evil dictator, a nepotist clown who presided over the mass starvation of his own people and whose actions led to the further ostracization of his already isolated state. While Havel rebelled against the intimidating power of the Soviet Union that had supported Czechoslovakia's Communist government for over 40 years, Kim Jong-il spent his time as supreme leader trying to model his state after the former U.S.S.R. in a futile attempt to attain that unattainable goal, a socialist paradise. North Korea was only a paradise for the Kim family. Havel, meanwhile, is experiencing true paradise right now, in the eternal kingdom of the Almighty.

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