It is difficult to imagine two more different political leaders to die within a day of each other than Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il. One was a symbol of the triumph of freedom over dictatorship through velvet revolution. The other led one of the most extreme examples of a cult of personality sitting on top of mass suffering and trying to maintain its grip on power and relevance through spasms of international misbehavior.
I once met Havel, at the castle in Prague during his first year as president of Czechoslovakia. I was part of an official U.S. delegation that also made other stops in Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia presented a distinctly different impression from the other two newly de-communized countries we visited, Poland and Hungary. In the latter two, the people who were making the governments run, including senior professionals in the security services who not long before had been serving communist regimes, had accomplished a seamless transition to being directed by a new set of political masters at the top. The formal dinners and other events of the trip were carried off smoothly as if our hosts had been dealing on a friendly basis with Western officials for many years. In Prague, the impression instead was of a bunch of hippies who were still trying to figure out what that governing business was all about. It was another friendly atmosphere for us, but a rather disorganized one. Havel, who always was more comfortable with countercultures than with castles, set the tone. He was the sort of president who would appoint Frank Zappa as a special emissary to Western countries.
Those different impressions from 1990 would not have made for good predictions about later political evolution of the countries concerned. The Czechs got their act together and even managed a fairly amicable divorce with the Slovaks just a couple of years later. Havel continued as president for another decade and, although his popularity waned somewhat, he was legitimately seen as a founding father of what is now a stable democracy at the center of Europe. Poland, especially under its current leadership, is one of the most solid and important members of the European Union. It is Hungary—which seemed to be coming out of the same mold as Poland two decades ago—that is now raising concerns about a drift to authoritarianism under the Fidesz party government.
No one has yet come up with a social scientific formula that relates in a reliable way different strategies of governing—along dimensions of looseness vs. control, or reform vs. firm resistance to change—to subsequent stability or instability. It is this type of uncertainty that many rulers in the Middle East have been confronting over the past year. What runs the greater risk of everything falling apart: concessions and some acquiescence to popular demands, on one hand, or firm and consistent resistance to demands, on the other? If Vaclav Havel represents the loose end and Kim Jong-il the tight end of one of those dimensions of governing, it is unclear in any particular case where along that dimension the greatest dangers of damaging instability may lie.
The North Korean case now involves a wretched regime with an heir apparent who is an unknown twenty-something, with probably slipping control over a desperately poor country. The wretched regime cannot last, and we can look forward to the world being better when it is no longer around. But we all share a stake in just how the regime goes. It would be nice to know of a North Korean governing strategy that would increase the odds of a soft landing and decrease the chance of a sudden and destructive implosion that could lead to something as dangerous as a U.S.-Chinese military confrontation. But even if we had the ear of Kim Jong-un or the North Korea military to suggest such a strategy, it is would be hard to decide what we ought to say.