Last weekend saw the deaths of two historic figures on opposite ends of the world’s moral spectrum, a communist dictator and a victim of communist dictatorship.
Headlines around the world featured the demise of Kim Jong-il, the bizarre and reclusive head of North Korea’s maniacally despotic regime.
Subordinate coverage noted the passing of Vaclav Havel. This dissident Czech writer suffered years in prison because of his fight for national freedom from authoritarianism under the Soviet empire before his elevation to the presidency of a liberated nation.
One man headed half of a divided country that went to war to unite North and South Korea under communist rule, while permitting no domestic challenge to his monolithic power in the Democratic People’s Republic.
The other led a true democratic people’s republic and resigned rather than see Czechoslovakia split into Czech and Slovak entities; he later yielded to popular demand and agreed to serve as president of the Czech Republic.
The contrast in their rule and the nature of the governments they headed reflect the character of the governments that supported them.
North Korea’s sole ally and its chief sponsor and protector was and is the People’s Republic of China. The two communist states joined in the invasion of South Korea in 1950 for which they were condemned as aggressors by the United Nations when Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was in power.
Ever since, they have proclaimed themselves “as close as lips and teeth.” Beijing has provided the government in Pyongyang with the material, political, and diplomatic support essential to keeping it in power. China has used its position on the UN Security Council to insulate North Korea from meaningful international sanctions as it built its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The two countries have also cooperated in fostering a network of nuclear and missile proliferation.
Vaclav Havel’s support from the West was less material than moral and psychological, such as through the radio messages of the British Broadcasting Company and the Voice of America, but it proved to be all he needed to sustain his struggle against tyranny.
Indeed, it is more accurate to say that his brave example inspired the West at least as much as the reverse. Some western artists and intellectuals on the left during that period were uncomfortable with the unvarnished anti-communism of Soviet and East European dissidents like Havel. But Havel’s courage and moral clarity distinguished him and his colleagues behind the Iron Curtain from the more jaded intellectuals in the West.
Even as a free man and a world leader, Havel did not forget those in other places still struggling for their liberty – in South Africa, the Balkans, and Burma. His support for the Dalai Lama and jailed Nobel laureate Liu Jiabo earned him China’s condemnation.
Part of his greatness is evident in the enemies he made – the enemies of freedom around the world. He will forever be enshrined in the annals of human liberty – a liberty that is still denied the subjects of the evil Kim dynasty of North Korea, and to the people of China whose government has enabled and protected that despotic regime.
The Nobel Committee should correct a historic injustice in having failed to award Havel the Peace Prize by doing it posthumously for his lifetime achievements on behalf of human dignity.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.