The nearly simultaneous passing of former Czech leader Vaclav Havel and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il on Sunday provided a stark reminder of the contrasts and consequences that stem from the moral convictions of national leaders.
Havel, the former playwright and dissident who became the reluctant first president of the post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, understood that genuine authority, the kind of authority that transforms and liberates a people, comes from personal morality, courage and decency.
Writing to then Czechoslovakian President Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring of 1968, Havel said presciently, "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance." Havel's vocal dissidence had him jailed at least three times under communist rule.
But his moral courage to speak hard truths to a brutal power eventually carried the day, and the playwright found himself leading hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens in the successful Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Havel brought to his new leadership role a deep appreciation for the role of a robust and moral civil society in the workings of true democracy. His "Summer Meditations," written in 1991, provide a rich account of his political thought.
Wrote Havel, "A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never ending work involving education and self-education."
"It is not, in short, something we can simply declare or introduce. It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things."
Havel was by no means perfect and his foray into democratic politics had its share of controversy. But given the totalitarian examples that preceded him, what was most remarkable about Havel was less his popular rise to power than his gentle use of and willingness to let go of power.
Although Havel was the vanguard voice for the Velvet Revolution, 22 years later, his passing causes sadness but no upheaval because he bequeathed to his nation working and adaptive institutions of democracy and free enterprise.
By contrast, the passing of Kim Jong Il has put all of East Asia on security alert — not because the world misses him, but because his megalomaniacal dictatorship was inherently rigid and unstable. With no clear institutional framework for how the power he wielded to arbitrarily torture and execute should be passed on, an erratic and impoverished North Korea looks less predictable than ever.
Kim Jong Il assumed the role of supreme leader of North Korea from his father at a time when other communist regimes were either falling or accommodating greater freedoms. But instead of helping to chart a path toward normalcy, Kim Jong Il helped to render North Korea the most isolated regime in the world.
Whereas Havel freed political prisoners, Kim Jong Il created kwanliso camps for enemies of the North Korean state, a network of internal prisons and work camps where the children of starving inmates are separated from parents but maintain their parent's prisoner status.
comments on this story
Whereas Havel was reluctant to accept and use his notoriety, except to advance the cause of freedom, Kim Jong Il tried to propagate a weird cult of personality as a further method to consolidate his power to repress. In the end, Havel's transcendent humanity attracted people from all over the world while Kim Jon-Il's narcissistic nihilism became increasingly repellant.
Central Europe can be forever grateful that Havel understood that genuine leadership comes from personal integrity, not from the formal exercise of will. As he once said, "there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility and tolerance and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly and tolerantly."