ANALYSIS | Kim Jong-il and Vaclav Havel, the extremes of our age

Their deaths came within hours of each other. But for Czech leader Vaclav Havel and North Korea's Kim Jong-il, their lives and principles couldn't have been further apart, Joe Schlesinger says.
A North Korean soldier gazes out over the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, about 42 kilometres northewest of Seoul.

There is surely no starker political contrast on this planet than the gulf that separated the two men who happened to die this week within hours of each other, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il.

The former Czech president and the North Korean leader represented the extremes not just of the politics of our age — and the interplay between power and principles — but also of the personal integrity of national leaders.

Havel once called Kim "the world's worst totalitarian dictator, who is responsible for taking millions of human lives."

That was six years ago, in 2005, when the West was offering Kim food and economic security to give up his nuclear weapons, and Havel knew what he was talking about.

As a dissident in communist-run Czechoslovakia, he too was persecuted. But he wasn't killed as he would have been in North Korea; he was only imprisoned and hounded when he was not.

The difference between the two men isn't just that Havel was a democrat and Kim a despot. Or that one was a communist and the other an anti-communist. Or that while one posed as an all-knowing demi-god the other governed benevolently, dispensing homilies.

It went way beyond that. In essence, Kim stood for power without principle; Havel for principle over power.

A country of generals

Kim's use of power was so murderous it even made other communist dictators uncomfortable.

The late Kim Jong-il, shown here in September 2011, according to the North Korean news agency. (Reuters)

For all the kind words that his only allies, the Chinese, have showered him with, he was to his dying day an embarrassment to them.

Not because he wielded too much power but because he wielded it so ineptly and turned his country into a starving poorhouse.

Still, they propped him up, because the collapse of North Korea could lead to a re-unification of the two Koreas that would put hostile forces, including the Americans, on China's border.

Kim's main instrument of power was a huge army. He and his father, Kim Il-sung, built North Korea into the most militarized country in the world.

The North Koreans have a standing army of more than a million men. That's only slightly less than the U.S. But the Koreans can call on another eight million trained reservists. This in a country of only 24 million people!

The size of North Korea's armed forces made it a threat to be reckoned with throughout the region, particularly when it came to the much more prosperous and democratic South Korea.

The wily Kim kept his neighbours on tenterhooks with a mixture of aggressive actions and bellicose threats interspersed with conciliatory moves.

That raised fears that a miscalculation could escalate Kim's limited military strikes into a full-blown invasion of South Korea. Or even a nuclear missile strike against Japan.

While such an attack would result in the annihilation of North Korea by U.S. nuclear weapons, no one was willing to bet that Kim could be counted on to pull back from the brink if he felt his hold on power was at stake.

And he fed his neighbours' fear of all-out war with outrageous statements that made him seem out of control.

The Hermit Kingdom

Ten years ago, South Korea and the U.S. tried to defuse the threat by reaching out to Kim.

The South Koreans declared a "sunshine policy" towards the North, and South Korea's president went to Pyongyang to offer its friendship and aid. So did the U.S., with a visit by President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

But the sunshine of rapprochement didn't last long. The foreign aid —mostly food — was never enough as North Korea sank ever deeper under the consequences of expanding its military might. The cost of militarization had destroyed North Korea's civilian economy and led to mass starvation.

Famished North Koreans by the tens of thousands started fleeing into China. Fearing they might be overrun by refugees, the Chinese erected barriers to keep them out.

That closed the last small gap in North Korea's isolation. The "Hermit Kingdom" became a prison in which millions faced death by starvation.

What Kim Jong-il left is no longer really a country. It is more a private preserve, a Kim family possession that has fallen on desperate times.

With its economy in ruins, it has survived —and will no doubt try to continue to survive — by blackmail. Its main enterprise is using its armed forces as a weapon of extortion to fill its begging bowl.

By contrast

Today's North Korea is neither communist nor nationalist. It really has no ideology at all. Its sole raison d'etre is to maintain the power and perks of the Kim clan and its hangers-on in the top ranks of the military. North Korea, in short, is nothing but a pure expression of brutal power.

The late Czech president and playwright, Vaclav Havel, shown here in October 2011. (Reuters)

For Vaclav Havel, by contrast, the purest expression of power was what he called "the power of the powerless."  

He was vaulted to the presidency in 1989 in a revolt of the powerless that he, a mere writer, had inspired.

It was a revolt we now call the Velvet Revolution, which, in a few days, peacefully overthrew a communist dictatorship that had been in power for 40 years.

In the past two decades, "the powerless" have risen in many parts of the world. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Sometimes peacefully, often not.

We have watched the scenario play out this year with the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But whether it's in the Arab world now or in Czechoslovakia two decades ago, the hardest part often comes after the dictatorship has been overthrown. As it did for Havel.

Once in power, he found his idealistic principles of a free and fair society swamped by the loud messiness of everyday democratic politics.

For much of his time in Prague Castle, he found himself sidelined by political opponents manoeuvring to satisfy the contending demands of a fragmented electorate.

To the Czechs, Havel is still a revered hero — a man who stood and suffered bravely for what is best in humanity.

But in the two decades since the Velvet Revolution they have gone on to adapt to the mundane reality of the often difficult compromises needed to make democracies work.

In the end, Vaclav Havel's greatest achievement is not that he is the very antithesis of the evil Kim Jong-il, but rather that he made it possible for his people to enjoy, much as we in Canada are used to doing, the precious freedom to be themselves.