The Prince and the Playwright: Kim Jong-il and Vaclav Havel

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Saint Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czech Republic
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Saint Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czech Republic

COMMENTARY | In the Mark Twain novel "The Prince and the Pauper," two boys swap identities, and therefore their lives. It led people to question what meant more: one's title or one's character.

A similar dichotomy occurred over the weekend when the news broke that North Korea's Kim Jong-il (see more details here) and Vaclav Havel (see his biography here) of the Czech Republic passed away. One was a prince, groomed for leadership from the moment he came into this world. The other was born to a prosperous family, emerging as a playwright who expressed his political views in his public performances, earning him repeated trips to prison.

One was a product of the Communist system. The other fought it with words and humor. One was bestowed leadership in a dynastic succession, while the other was elected president of his country. One came from in a country that has one of the largest militaries in the world, despite its small size. The other came from a country reeling from being bullied by both the Nazi Empire and Soviet occupation. One made headlines through nuclear blackmail with its neighbors, while the other spent a pair of shy political terms in office, and left power even more quietly.

So it shouldn't surprise you that Kim Jong-il's death got more internet buzz. I found 9.79 million hits for the North Korean leader on Yahoo, compared to the 1.4 million Yahoo hits generated for Vaclav Havel. But "the playwright" may have made a greater impact upon history than "the prince."

When I visited Czechoslovakia in 1990, the country had been run into the ground by the Communists. The economic contrast between Austria and the Czechs looked as glaring as the border between the United States and Mexico. We got an entire four-course meal, appetizers, drinks and desert for my family of six for about $2.

Yet there was hope. You could feel it. I remember people gathering around a poster of Havel, running for president, and snapped a photo of it. My trip souvenir became a small plastic pin with a tiny picture of Havel glued to it. There was optimism, even with the painful transition to a market economy. And if that wasn't enough, the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" of Havel's became "the Velvet Divorce," as Slovakia peacefully left Havel's Czech Republic.

Even with all of these losses, Havel and the Czechs persisted. And their patience paid off. According to the United Nations' Human Development Indicators, measuring GDP per capita, literacy and life expectancy, the Czech Republic ranks 27th in the world, surpassing that initial bleak forecast and years of central planning mismanagement. North Korea, on the other hand, is among the 20 countries regarded as a "Failed State" by Foreign Policy magazine.

Kim Jong-il's death may get more attention. But Havel in the end may get more of a place in history as an inspiration to others of his non-violent approach, yet willingness to speak his mind. Maybe a "playwright" is waiting in North Korea to provide that path to freedom that "the prince" never chose to provide his people.

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