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Vaclav Havel: crisis of 'human spirit' demands spiritual reawakening

Vaclav Havel spent his life fighting for freedom and democratic expression. His legacy stands in sharp contrast to that of Kim Jong-il, who ruthlessly denied his people a voice.

By Staff Writer / December 23, 2011

People light candles as they pay their respects to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square in Prague Thursday.

David W Cerny/Reuters

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Paris

The mingled images of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il lying in state this week are a sobering finale to a year of global upheaval.

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2011 brought an Arab Spring followed by a Pacific earthquake and tsunami that knocked the earth 9 millimeters off its axis – and it ended with the passing on the same day of arguably the best and the worst, the lightest and the darkest, of global public figures.

It’s a stranger-than-fiction contrast that would likely cause the dramatist in Havel to smile. He spent his life fighting for freedom, expression, growth toward more light, and bringing the East and West European families together. Mr. Kim spent his days ruthlessly denying those impulses, and reinforcing a dark, prison-state built on brainwashing and the personal deification of the Kim family dynasty.

Today in Prague, Bill and Hillary Clinton are joining British Prime Minister David Cameron, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and a galaxy of artists and others, at Havel’s funeral. The guest list at Kim’s service has not been forthcoming. But the litmus test can be imagined.

I can remember interviewing Havel at his colorful office in the Prague castle, days before he came to Harvard University to deliver the 1996 commencement address. He spoke of the importance of civil society, and how tendencies in the modern world after the cold war still threatened the human spirit. At Harvard, then-Vice President Al Gore was in the audience (his daughter was graduating). At the time, the West was watching the Bosnian carnage from the sidelines. Havel pleaded openly with the US to do something, which it eventually did.

Later, while reporting in Beijing, I was denied access to Kim’s North Korea, but visited border areas where refugees gathered. We heard of labor camps the size of US cities, of starvation, fear, the beating and killing of prisoners, and of a system in the north allowing only those proved to have pure Korean blood to live in Pyongyang. The picture was chilling. But with Kim playing the nuclear card, little attention was paid to the North Korean people.

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