“When truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete."
Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic and a prominent figure in its struggle for democracy during the communist era, passed away on December 18th, 2011, just a day before the death of Kim Jong Il was reported. It was a coincidence that brought talk of the end of an era.
“With Václav Havel left a man who had given back the Czech nation its dignity, a man who played a crucial role in our nation’s independence in 1989. He was the most famous of Czechs, respected worldwide. Unfortunately, more welcomed and recognized abroad than at home. A humble and a shy person as he was, he succeeded in meeting and dealing with the most powerful people in this world. I only hope that at least now we come to realize what a man we had as a fellow citizen and will take an example from him.” (Karel Schwarzenberg, Czech minister of Foreign Affairs, Dec. 18, 2011)
Václav Havel’s figure stands out in the anti-communist revolutionary firmament thanks to the ideas behind his struggle, a struggle through peaceful yet powerful means, of words and hope, working for a righteous cause. And the universal humanist that he was, his advocacy for human rights never stopped even when it could sometimes appear to be like Quijote’s beating of the windmills. As he himself once said: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Equally: “Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don't, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you.” Endurance in non-resignation was the key driving force of his dissident years, a universal in the struggle against totalitarianism.
Naturally, following the logic of this spirit, he did not consider his commitment to human rights and struggle for democracy fulfilled once the Iron Curtain had been taken down; he followed the fate of other nations living under oppressive regimes just as he had follwed his own. To him, Pyongyang was “the most totalitarian in the world,” as he said in his first article condemning the North Korean establishment for starving its people to death in 2004. With the Six-Party Talks resuming after the North Korean nuclear test in 2006, Havel – with other scholars – urged policymakers not to get distracted by the nuclear threat and use the opportunity to draw Pyongyang into a debate over human rights, and he was one of those who subsequently commissioned ‘Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea’ and ‘Failure to Protect: The Ongoing Challenge of North Korea,’ reports to the UN Security Council, and urged democratic nations to unite and make a firm stand on the human rights issue in all dealings with Pyongyang, since he said a position of power is the only one which dictators such as Kim Jong Il understand.
Yet it should not be a physical power per se, Havel went on to claim, but more of a moral one: “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”
With Kim Jeong Eun’s recent ascension to power, then Havel’s words seem to regain a new validity:
▲ through his legacy of strong belief in the power of words and his call for a strong, unified pro-human rights stance during any dealings with Pyongyang, concepts that might just have found their moment; or,
▲ through his legacy of hope, even if now it might seem like hoping against hope for anyone involved in the North Korean human rights movement.
For as Tomáš Halik said in giving the requiem sermon for Havel on December 20th, “Václav Havel has shown that politics in not only a matter of power; it is so indeed, and it is not advisable to despise that. But at certain levels, politics is primarily a culture, a culture of communication.”
On January 6th, 2012, at 2:00 pm, there is to be a “Memorial Tribute Honoring the Life and Work of Vaclav Havel” in Seoul, jointly organized by the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, The April Society and the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Seoul.