This month has seen the death of two men who have undoubtedly influenced and shaped the way their countries interact with the outside world. However, they will be remembered in two completely different ways: one as a hero of democracy, the other as contributing to the continuation of his country’s Stalinist ideology and almost complete isolation. Without doubt the world will look at their legacies very differently.
The first of these two men, and the one whose life is sure to create debate for many years to come, is Kim Jong Il. The North Korean leader, known for his hardline, autocratic dictatorship and almost manic personality cult, died after an apparent heart attack in his home country on the weekend. North Korean media reported that Kim died while on a train to a “field session” with some of his people. However, like his life, Kim’s death may remain shrouded in mystery and propaganda. Over the last 20 years, his political ideologies have seen him cement North Korea as one of the few communist strongholds in the world. While lauded by his country’s media and people, Kim will be best remembered in South Korea as the man who insisted on developing a nuclear program while many of his people starved.
Kim’s secretive and obsessive character has without question, been the keystone in keeping the country isolated from most of the world (with the noted exception of China). However the effect his death will have, including the uncertain transition to a new leadership under his son and anointed successor Kim Jong Un, is something that remains to be seen over the coming months and years. After hearing the news, the general feeling in South Korea was one of shock, and initial general reactions were hard to ascertain. Across the rest of the world, governments were adopting a “wait and see” approach on what effect the transition will have on the country. Despite the chances of destabilisation, many world political figures will be silently pleased that this difficult and dangerous leader’s passing has come.
In complete contrast, the death of Vaclav Havel just a day before has evoked many memories of his leadership and courage in taking his country Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic) to freedom from the Warsaw Pact and its style of government. Havel was a Czech dissident, playwright, and also the first leader of the country after it was released from the shackles of communist oppression in the 1989 Velvet Revolution. He dedicated much of his life and work against the Soviet-style form of government that gripped much of Central and Eastern Europe from the end of the war until the late 1980s and his sad passing is a timely reminder of the good that people can do. He was a leader and a figurehead for the Czech people and served as a model for revolutions to come. Having been imprisoned for his beliefs, he also worked tirelessly against unfair punishment.
His outlook could not have been further from that of Kim Jong Il, and he fought to give people the political freedom which remains absent under Kim’s rule in North Korea. Condolences from political leaders from all over the world have remembered Havel as a great man whose life and work have positively influenced millions of people, something that will be absent when remembering Kim Jong Il.
It remains to be seen how Kim Jong Il’s death will affect North Korea. The hope is that the regime will come to an end at some point and that political freedom will be introduced to the country, but this remains an idealistic view. However, after such a long period of oppression it is very hard to tell how events will unfold. Changes will not happen overnight and the news of his death will need time to settle.
Whilst to many outsiders he was a bizarre and problematic character whose legacy will be remembered as detrimental to the country, as with the Soviet regime in Europe, there are a many followers who believed that his was the right way forward and will look to continue with the regime Kim Jong Il adopted and developed from his father. Some though are predicating change and view his death as a potential turning point, however the South Korean military have been placed on alert according to reports, ready to react to any circumstance. The year 2011 has seen a lot of political change throughout the globe, with the downfall of Gaddafi and the uprising in Egypt two key examples and we will see if this unrest and change spreads to this part of the world.
Havel’s legacy has lived on, and while Russia is still heavily influenced by its past, the rest of Europe has looked to move on. In the last 20 years it has prospered politically. Havel is remembered positively, whereas I suspect Kim Jong Il is destined to be remembered along with the people Havel fought bravely against. Hopefully, as was the case with Europe, democracy will be introduced and the country will adopt and follow a similar path to that of the south. It will certainly be an interesting period in history and the following months and years will without doubt be closely monitored around the world.
It is early days, but the death of these two figures is extremely significant, and it is interesting that two men who have influenced countries in entirely different ways should die at the same time. Kim Jong Il’s death has reminded us further of the tyrannous regime he held in his country and the devastation it has caused. However, in contrast, Vaclav Havel’s passing has reminded all of us of the work and effort he put in to ending such regimes, and that there is hope that they will fall once again.
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