This weekend two very different men died. This in itself is not an uncommon occurrence although it is ironic that these two should both pass away on the same day. Both had been leaders, albeit of rather small nations. Both exerted influence in the world far greater than the size or power of their respective countries would have dictated under other circumstances. Again, these facts are not all that significant in themselves. What is significant are the choices both men made and the impact of their decisions on the world they bequeathed to us.
Today, much of the world mourns the passing of Vaclav Havel, the first president of a democratic Czechoslovakia as well as of the Czech Republic. He is considered the father of the so-called Velvet Revolution, the peaceful demise of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia that led the way for similar revolutions throughout most of Eastern Europe. Havel oversaw his homeland’s transition from East to West, its entry into NATO and membership in the European Union. In many ways Havel’s Velvet Revolution was the model for similar events elsewhere including the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and even Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution that precipitated the Arab Spring.
Virtually no one save the apparatchiks’ in Pyongyang is sad to see the end of Kim Jong Il. He will be remembered, if at all, for North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the price paid for that achievement: the deaths of millions of his own people due to government-created famines. Then there were the personal idiosyncrasies such as stockpiling rare Scotch whiskeys and ordering the kidnapping of a Japanese actress. In whatever edifice the Hereafter might possess which is the opposite of a pantheon Kim now stands alongside such lesser figures as Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Uganda’s Idi Amin and Cambodia’s Pol Pot and at the feet of the modern world’s great mass murderers: Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Havel brought his country out of darkness; Kim only deepened his people’s gloom. Many countries today struggle with the challenges of instituting or maintaining democratic governments and the temptation to return to authoritarian rule. Nothing better demonstrates the rewards and consequences of the choice between these two alternatives than the diverging trajectories of the Czech Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Havel set a standard for successful leadership that government the world over should desire to emulate. North Korea’s neighbors worry that the late Kim Jong Il’s heir, Kim Jong Eun, will seek to outdo his father’s recent legacy of bombast and violence.
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