IT'S MORE than a little ironic that the death of Vaclav Havel, who played a major role in disintegrating a totalitarian regime, coincided roughly with the announcement of the death of Kim Jong Il, who committed himself to sustaining such a regime. They were two sides of a similar coin. Without men like Kim, Havel would have had no reason to risk his life to bring about generational change; without men like Havel, Kim would have no concrete excuse (though he probably had many imagined ones) to so ruthlesslessly enforce the kind of perverse system injustice and inhumanity that defines his nation.
Even now that Kim has died, it is clear that North Korea will likely continue "living within the lie", as Havel would describe such a society, that he and his father Kim Il Sun sustained for so long.
This extraordinary video footage offers a spectacular example of just how bizarre the North Korean lie was and apparently remains. It shows masses of North Koreans weeping hysterically in public over the last few days in the wake of the "Dear Leader's" passing. At times, the din of the crying seems almost deafening and the histrionics extreme.
There could be many social and psychological reasons for this outpouring, some have suggested. But there's quite possibly something else going on there, according to at least one former party ideology boss (quoted here) who defected to South Korea in 1997 and said that after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 “anything other than mourning was not allowed.”
“The party conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief, and made this an important criterion in assessing party members’ loyalty. Patients who remained in hospitals and people who drank and made merry even after hearing news of their leader’s death were all singled out for punishment.” Even those who remained merely dry-eyed, he said, were harshly reprimanded and penalized. In other words, for many the grief is just a government-engineered show from which the people are not free to desist.
The scene of the North Korean mourners instantly reminds me of an unforgettable vignette Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes in "The Gulag Archipelago". In the late-1930s in Moscow Province, Solzhenitsyn documented, a district Pary conference took place:
At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up.... The small hall echoed with "stormy applause, rising to an ovation." For three, minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the "stormy applause rising to an ovation" continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting with exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would be the first to stop?
The applause continued for nine, ten minutes, but no one could figure out just how they could possibly end the agony, even though they were all surely conscious of the insanity of it all. It's hypothetically possible they would have gone on clapping for much longer had it not been for a certain director of a paper factory, who, after a full 11 minutes of the nonsense, "assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat."
And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
That was, however, how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different.
This is what Havel called "living within the lie," enabling a great charade to govern all of life. As he wrote in 1978, the totalitarian system is:
...thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial intluence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing."
Havel added that "when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game, everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably."
This breaking of the rules (or jumping off the revolving wheel, as Solzhenitsyn might put it) is what Havel called "living within the truth" -- difficult and dangerous business, as the examples from North Korea and the Soviet Union illustrate. It can take generations, if ever, before "living within the truth" cracks the granite infrastructure of a totalitarian regime. People like Havel, Solzhenitsyn and the many other dissidents across the globe and history have put up with unthinkable physical pain, psychological and economic depredation and, worst of all, the demoralization at times that their sacrifices may be all for naught.
Havel's legacy takes us back to a time that seems so distant now it's hard to believe a society so absurd, dehumanizing and utlimately self-destructive could ever have existed. Kim's present-day North Korea is, of course, the smelling salt that wakes us from such disbelief. It reminds me also of how extraordinary those people are who "live within the truth" and how mere mortals like me are not fit for such a noble and difficult existence.