The deaths of two historically significant world leaders were announced on Sunday.

In North Korea, Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" who ruled cruelly for 17 years, died at 69. In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, a leader dear for his transition from playwright to prisoner to president, died at 75.

World attention will rightfully focus on North Korea's transition. But in the process, Havel's contributions should not be obscured.

Kim was ruthless. Rightly listed by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, he was tied to both a 1983 bombing in Burma that killed 17 South Koreans and a 1987 Korean Air bombing that killed 115.

And that was even before he succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader," who died in 1994.

Once in charge, his policies resulted in the deaths of up to 2 million, either due to an inadequate response to a famine or at the hands of North Korea's Orwellian state security apparatus.

Kim's menace extended to his neighbors: South Korean naval vessels were attacked, an island was shelled and missiles were shot toward Japan. Ominously, North Korea's nascent nuclear weapons program now threatens world peace.

In Pyongyang, Kim's 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, has been named "Great Successor" by state-run media, signifying his likely ascension. Little is known about the younger Kim, yet it's widely thought he will heed his father's hard-line stance.

The Obama administration must be prepared for Kim Jong Un to flex North Korea's military muscle, even though he has no military experience. But the administration should also be prepared to see, and seek, any opening toward a more constructive relationship.

The United States should continue to work through the so-called six-party talks, which besides North Korea also involve South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

The late Kim consistently sought bilateral negotiations, but a multilateral approach is needed, especially considering the inordinate influence China has with North Korea.

The need to seek diplomatic solutions to avert a military crisis reinforces that repairing relationships with Russia and working through difficult diplomatic issues with China are essential.

No such need for relationship repair exists with the Czech Republic, thanks in no small part to Havel's lifelong leadership.

Art has always influenced politics. But rarely do artists themselves lead their countries. Havel was a leader well before being elected in 1989.

His unflinching commitment to human rights, and his astute assessment that communism couldn't be reformed and needed to be scrapped, was reflected in his work as a playwright and his gutsy involvement in dissident groups.

Imprisoned for his outspoken stance, Havel's moral example exposed how hollow the sclerotic rule of Czechoslovakia's leaders was, and he skillfully eased them out during 1989's "Velvet Revolution."

Havel's presidency was uneven, as it is with most leaders. But his legacy as a playwright -- and his key role in Czechoslovakia's rejection of communism -- makes him an example of how much difference a nation's leader can make.

However remote, the possibility exists that Kim Jung Un can also transform his country and move North Korea from a Stalinist "hermit kingdom" to one that abandons bellicosity in favor of international integration.

Those involved in the six-party talks should do everything to encourage that possibility, while at the same time preparing for the worst from North Korea.

* * *

Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.