North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who for more than 17 years led an autocratic economic system that could only be described as the very antithesis of capitalism, would have taken delight at the irony that stock markets across Asia dropped following the announcement of his death.
Equally ironic, albeit for different reasons, is that his death occurred within 24 hours of that of another man at the other end of the political spectrum, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, and within 48 hours of that of a staunch opponent of totalitarianism, Christopher Hitchens.
More than the era in which they lived unites the trio, as each played a role in defining our times, and each was an actor on the stage where totalitarianism collided with liberty.
Beyond the legacy of their deeds lies the world’s reaction to their passing, which offers us a glimpse of where we stand morally.
Chinese state media took note of Havel’s death, but kept details to a minimum, reporting only that he had died in his sleep at the age of 75 because of prolonged illness, that he became the last president of Czechoslovakia in December 1989 and that he was the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. No mention was made of his role as a political dissident and prisoner of conscience combating Soviet totalitarianism, or of his Charter 77 movement. (Interestingly, Hitchens was arrested in Prague in 1988 for attending one of Charter 77’s committee meetings.)
Chinese media made no mention, either, of the fact that Havel urged Chinese authorities to release jailed human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), whose Charter 08 movement calling for greater political freedom in China was inspired by Havel’s Charter 77, or that he contributed a foreword to a new volume of Liu’s writings.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world, minus a few authoritarian leftovers, celebrates Havel not because he became president — he did so reluctantly — but because of his determination to fight for justice against the odds and for continuing to do so after his country finally cast off its burdensome mantle of communism with the Velvet Revolution.
Chinese media eulogies for Kim, who died on Saturday, have yet to materialize, but we can imagine that they will be less economical in their musings on the man’s life and more hyperbolic in their enumeration of his accomplishments. While Hitchens, whose nearly four-decade career as a writer spared none who sided with tyranny, whatever its form, wrote of “Kim Jong-il and his fellow slave masters” and “the Kim Jong-il system as a phenomenon of the very extreme and pathological right,” we can well expect closed political systems like China’s to be more generous. After all, the Chinese Communist Party was Pyongyang’s one and only true diplomatic ally.
In the end, people are judged by what they leave behind and whether what remains in their wake is better for their having lived. Havel leaves a legacy of hope and will serve as an inspiration to the downtrodden for generations to come. His failings as a president notwithstanding, he bequeathed a country that is indisputably better than it was when the playwright found himself locked up in a damp communist cell, confinement that would have a lasting effect on his health. Hitchens, had he survived him, would have found the right words to measure the man.
Kim leaves behind a destitute people whose country has become the laughing stock of the international community. True, he was the successor to a man, his father, whose shortcomings were as towering as his megalomania. However, Kim had a choice; he could have made his country a better place. He didn’t. He goes down in infamy, a despot of such magnitude that his demise has prompted a neighboring country to declare a state of emergency.
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