by Rob S.
I grew up in a house previously owned by George Voskovec, the Czech actor, comic, and dissident. Voskovec fled Czechoslovakia twice, in 1939 and 1948, having sufficiently angered both the Nazis and Communists with his political satire. (Fordham Film Festival fans will recognize Voskovec as the mustachioed Juror #11, in Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men.) As a child, it was routine to answer the doorbell on weekends to find a group of nervous Czech tourists, wondering if they could see Voskovec’s house (they could), the tree under which he wrote his memoir (it was an overgrown privet), or where he might have met with Vaclav Havel (right in front of my Nintendo). I listened in a few times while my parents spoke with a group, enough to know that Havel was the Czech President and governed the country’s transition from Communist rule. It wasn’t until college that I read about his role in the Velvet Revolution – a dissident author and intellectual leader turned head of state.
Following his presidency, Havel became a global leader in the struggle for human rights, focusing his attention in recent years on the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. In 2006 and 2008, Havel, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Elie Wiesel co-authored reports alleging the North Korean government’s failure to protect its people and demanding international action – if necessary through the United Nations Security Council – on behalf of the North Korean people. The authors reject past reluctance to raise human rights issues with North Korea for fear of alienating them from a fragile diplomacy. Instead, they argue that engagement with North Korea must address the humanitarian crisis directly, and the crisis must be part of all international involvement with the country. As the authors write, “The people of North Korea deserve nothing less.” This Sunday, Havel passed away, just one day after the death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. As power transfers in North Korea with all possibility of a change, I imagine Havel arguing there can be no change in our insistence that the human suffering there be our frame for engagement.