[This op-ed piece was written by CanKor Brain Trust member Charles Burton, and published in the Ottawa Citizen on 22 December 2011. Charles Burton is associate professor of political science at Brock University and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. –Cankor]
Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il, both of whom died this week, personified an extreme contrast in leadership styles. Each man oversaw a nation’s response to the dashing of the hope for human dignity and justice that the Marxist-Leninist paradigm once offered. But the ways each went about it could not have been more different.
Both Czechoslovakia and North Korea were deeply affected by the decline of the Soviet Union that began in the mid-1980s and culminated with its collapse in 1991. But North Korea turned inward, replacing Marxist ideology with the even more stifling and arcane Juche doctrine, and intensifying its repressive politics of charismatic personality cult to new extremes. From the late 1980s on, North Korea became even more closed to the outside world, leading to a rapid deterioration of the national economy to the point that more than a million of its people died of starvation in the famine of 1995-’97.
Today North Korea is dependent on food and energy inputs from China, South Korea and the UN, which delivers food aid originating in the United States and other western nations, including Canada. Even so, about half the children in North Korea still suffer from stunted growth and disabilities due to prolonged malnutrition. Meanwhile, the North Korean politicaland military elite lives in high luxury with their Mercedes Benzes, munificent walled housing compounds, flownin supplies of lobster and cognac, jewelry and expensive perfume imported through China; all gifts of the Dear Leader to maintain their support for his domination of a miserably failed state.
Those who question and complain about the regime, or fail to utterly comply with the ridiculous strictures of the Kim family personality cult, are sent to prison camps accompanied by three generations of their immediate family. Any talk at the UN of a responsibility to protect the people in North Korea is quickly stifled by the knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry and the fear that the regime will use those weapons if push comes to shove.
On the other hand, the Czech Republic under Vaclav Havel adopted policies of truth, democracy and openness after its Marxist regime collapsed in 1989. The Velvet Revolution used fairness and compassion in dealing with political leaders who had been perpetuators of injustice during Czechoslovakia’s repressive Marxist-Leninist period. The promise of a society based on human rights and the rule of law was grasped enthusiastically by citizens and leaders alike.
In the following years, the economy prospered and Czech culture thrived. And when the consensus among Czechs was that it was time for Havel to give up the presidency (he never was much of an administrator), he gracefully resigned and lived out his life in a simple style, writing plays and directing movies while staying much revered by a grateful Czech citizenry. He was made a companion of the Order of Canada in 2004, just one of the many awards recognizing his brilliant contribution to history and to humanity.
Kim Jong-il, the anti-Havel, is little mourned by Koreans outside the DPRK. But his death is no time to rejoice. Kim designated his 20-something third son, Kim Jung-un, as his successor. We have little knowledge about the power struggle that is ensuing between factions in the Kim family and in the North Korean military. In fact, considering how unreliable reports are that come out of North Korea, it’s difficult to know for sure whether Kim Jong-il died of a sudden heart attack or died of a sudden assassination.
But North Koreans’ faith in the personality cult has been fading with each generation of Kims in charge. Kim Jong-il is seen as a pale reflection of his father, Kim Il-sung. And Kim Jung-un has had little time to establish political credibility in a culture that reveres age and experience. Chances are good that the regime would foment an international incident to instil a unifying crisis domestically. This has been standard operating procedure of the Kim regime’s international brinkmanship policy. Just hours after revealing Kim Jong-ils death, North Korea stoked those fears by reportedly conducting a short-range missile test off the country’s east coast. The South Korean military is now on high alert.
And then there is China.
Unverified reports out of South Korea indicate that Chinese President Hu Jintao will be the only foreign leader invited to Kim Jongil’s funeral on Dec. 28. The Chinese Communist Party regime is the only government that has any significant influence over key actors in the North Korean Workers Party and North Korean military.
The time has come for Beijing to set aside its fears of the geopolitical implications of a reunified democratic Korea. The best thing for all concerned would be for China to work constructively with South Korea and the global community to bring about a stable transition of North Korea to a state based on the civil, political, and economic rights of North Koreans to a good and just society. One hopes a North Korean Havel will come to power there before it is too late.