Two leaders, but only one statesman

Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il, both products of the Cold War era, died in the same week. But what a difference between their lives.

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They both grew to adulthood on the communist side of the Iron Curtain, during the global stand-off of the Cold War. Both came from prominent and prosperous families. Neither had to fight to gain political power, but both attained it. Each led a small country, and each acquired disproportionate fame around the world.

But there the parallels between Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il come to an end, except that both men died this week, Havel full of honours at age 75, Kim widely reviled at either 69 or 70 (even his age may have been a deception).

Kim was born into power, the son of Kim Il-sung who had been installed by Josef Stalin in 1945 to run the new North Korean state. Kim Il-sung isolated his people from the world and built an unrivalled cult of personality, which his son claimed for himself upon inheriting power in 1994. Crackpot economics, relentless militarism and disastrous foreign policy doomed millions of North Koreans to starvation. Satellite photos of the Korean peninsula at night show South Korea brightly lit, as if glittering with wealth; North Korea is mostly just darkness.

While Kim Jong-il, like his father, was ruthlessly ignoring his countrymen, far away in Central Europe Havel was listening to his, and to his conscience. An intellectual and a playwright, Havel became caught up in the Prague Spring of 1968, a popular response to decades of Soviet-dominated fossilisation in Czechoslovakia. When that premature flowering of reform was crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks, Havel wrote politically influential plays about how Czechs and Slovaks felt, articulating the moral rejection of communism which eventually swept away the Soviet empire.

In 1975, Havel addressed an open letter to the communist president of the day: "True enough the country is calm," he told Gustav Husak. "Calm as a morgue or a grave, wouldn't you say?" By 1990, Havel was president of a post-communist country. "A playwright who acted as a citizen," he later called himself.

There was, alas, nobody to ask the same shaming question of Kim Jong-il or his father; keeping a people supine and isolated and hungry will keep a regime in power - for a while. Today Czechs and Slovaks cope with whole range of problems, but cope with them as citizens. That national right is still denied to the people of North Korea. For now.