Have we even seen a day in which we learned two men of such great political stature — stature, that is, which they obtained for diametrically opposite reasons — died, unrelatedly, as we did yesterday? (Note: This has been edited to reflect the updated information that, although we learned of Kim Jong Il’s death Sunday, he actually died Saturday.)
First came the news about Vaclav Havel, the great Czech playwright-turned-political activist who led the completely peaceful overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in 1989. From the New York Times’ obituary:
A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.
All the while, Mr. Havel came to personify the soul of the Czech nation.
His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired.
Among Americans, Havel may be underappreciated compared to other democrats along the Iron Curtain. As communism — and the Berlin Wall — collapsed in East Germany and Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement captivated us from Poland, Havel’s writings and sufferings constituted a powerful moral case against totalitarianism.
Five thousand miles — and more than two decades of progress — away from Prague is Pyongyang, North Korea, from which later Sunday (already Monday on the Korean Peninsula by then) we learned of the death of Kim Jong Il.
Kim was sometimes mocked in the West as a madman (see: “Team America: World Police”), but he oversaw one of the most brutal dictatorships since Stalin. The Czechs, Poles and other peoples of Central Europe were well on their way to restoring their liberties by 1994, when Kim took over from his father, Kim Il Song. Far from modernizing the country, he continued the policies that have led to mass starvation, political imprisonment and executions. All while perfecting the political cult of personality, as this passage from Reuters’ obituary demonstrates:
North Korean propaganda said Kim Jong-il was born on February 16, 1942, at a secret camp for rebel fighters led by his father near Korea’s famed Mount Paektu. But analysts say he was likely born in the Soviet Union when his father was with other Korean communist exiles receiving military and other training.
His official biography said that in elementary school he showed his revolutionary spirit by leading marches to battlefields where Korean rebels fought against Japanese occupiers of the peninsula.
By the time he was in middle school he had shown himself to be an exemplary factory worker who could repair trucks and electric motors.
He went to Kim Il-sung University where he studied the great works of communist thinkers as well as his father’s revolutionary theory, in a systematic way, state propaganda said.
North Korea analysts said however, Kim lived a life of privilege in the capital, Pyongyang, when his family returned to the divided peninsula in 1945.
The lies continued to the end: According to CNN, North Korea’s state-run TV agency reported Kim “died due to ‘overwork’ after ‘dedicating his life to the people.’ ”
It is hard to believe matters will improve for the people of North Korea under Kim’s son and presumed successor, Kim Jong Un. Still, as great a juxtaposition as his death provided Sunday with Havel’s death, it is fitting that Kim should depart this world in the same year as his fellow mass murderers Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi.
– By Kyle Wingfield