The world condemns North Korea’s rocket launch and misses the point again

The world condemns North Korea’s rocket launch and misses the point again
Photo Credit: Kyodo/Reuters
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The collective global roar of disapproval that greeted North Korea’s launch of its satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 is a familiar sound by now. The universal fury at Pyongyang’s actions was similar to that which greeted its purported recent underground test of a hydrogen bomb.

As they did after that event, the US, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China (and many others) were forced into an uncomfortable diplomatic lockstep by their need to issue loud objections – though later statements on what might be done to censure North Korea were rather more uneven. And just as was the case with the size of the January 2016 test at Punggye-ri, the scale of the Kwangmyongsong-4 launch’s technological achievement has already been questioned. South Korea’s Yonhap agency was characteristically quick to suggest it had been a failure.

Business as usual, then. And as usual, the world is overlooking any context for the launch beyond the issue of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. As is generally the case when it comes to North Korea and technology, there’s a glaring gap between what’s actually going on in North Korea and the invective thrown back by its foes. Kwangmyongsong-4 is as much about national scientific and economic development as much as it is about geopolitical messaging.

In December 2012, North Korea launched Kwangmyongsong-3, which it described as an earth observation satellite designed to generate data to support North Korean agricultural planning (though it was also intended to broadcast the Song of Kim Il-Sung to the planet on a 470Mhz frequency). Unfortunately for Pyongyang, nothing was ever heard from it; both computer simulation and visual observation proved that whatever had been placed in orbit was spinning hopelessly out of control.

So far, North Korea has refrained from bragging about Kwangmyongsong-4’s technical capacity, and has issued no claims as to its musicality. It is once again described as an “earth observation satellite” containing “measuring apparatuses and telecommunications apparatuses needed for observing the earth”.

But this time, according to analysis of its path and orbit, the object released by the final stage of the orbital vehicle appears to be under control; in fact, its orbit has even been described by respected Dutch satellite tracker Marco Langbroek as “consistent with a remote sensing role”.

Of course, nations around the world seem determined not to accept Kwangmyongsong-4 as anything other than yet another example of provocative weapons testing. They are keen to negate Pyongyang’s assertions that this is indeed an exercise in the development of its capacity to explore space for peaceful ends.

Getting a grip

Such exploration and utilisation is of course entirely legal under the United Nation’s 1967Outer Space Treaty and the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space – both of which North Korea acceded to in 2009.

Why indeed would it be so strange for Pyongyang to want to develop its capacity to launch vehicles into space, or to build functional earth observation devices? North Korea’s conception of 2012’s device as an element of projects focused on improving its agricultural capacity surely makes perfect sense given the historically haphazard nature of North Korean industrial planning.

Reuters/Kyodo

If the satellite really does have remote sensing capacity, that could be a boon to North Korea’s ability to manage its forests and fisheries, and could greatly improve the country’s meteorological monitoring ability.

These are major domestic priorities. The Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, quite unexpectedly and viciously denounced the country’s weather forecasting service in 2014, and in 2015, his government put a lot of work into developing the fishing industry and improving flood prevention and forecasting (especially after recent floods in the important Rason Special Economic Zone).

And aside from the obvious potential practical benefits, external commentators have paid scant attention to Kwangmyongsong-4’s place in North Korea’s charismatic political calendar.

Fascinating vapour

Western commentators certainly made mention of the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun’s euphoric report of the launch, which marvelled at “the fascinating vapour of Juche satellite trailing in the clear and blue sky in spring of February on the threshold of the Day of the Shining Star”. But they failed to connect the commemorative dots.

February 16, the Day of the Shining Star, was Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, what better posthumous gift could there be for the Dear Leader?

The outside world has also overlooked any connection with the impending Seventh Party Congress of the Korean Workers Party in May 2016, and the political and developmental theatrics that will accompany this year-long event.

Instead, the wider world is railing against Pyongyang using its typical themes of threat, fear and danger. The global gnashing of teeth shows us just how myopic and black-and-white the thinking on North Korea has become.

We live in a world where potentially dual-use technology is blasted above the stratosphere many times a year, and where the launch of astronauts such as the UK’s new “hero” Major Tim Peake can be lauded as manifestations of national pluck. Even in the depths of the cold war, the Soviet Air Force’s Yuri Gagarin was lionised in the West for his pioneering space voyage. And yet, for all that the domestic context for this launch is plain to see, we refuse to open our minds to the idea that Pyongyang’s space ventures may be motivated by anything other than belligerence.

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Why Siachen is a purposeless world record for India to hold

Why,Siachen,is,a,purposeless,world,record,for,India,to,hold
Why Siachen is a purposeless world record for India to hold
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News of the tragic avalanche on Siachen which buried ten Indian soldiers reminded me of the glacier’s place in the Guinness Book of World Records. As a schoolboy, I had large sections of the British edition of that book committed to memory. It was no deliberate effort but the automatic result of being fascinated enough by the information it contained to read through it repeatedly. I convinced my mother to buy me the American version as well, but found it preoccupied with things in which I had no interest, like the the National Football League. The British edition was more substantial and less parochial.

I recognised early on that Indians held very few world records. The great swimmer Mihir Sen found mention, as did the invincible hockey teams of undivided India. Predictably, the longest recorded legal dispute had taken place in India. Then there was a man boasting the world’s longest moustache, and Shridhar Chillal, who had the world’s longest fingernails. Kharagpur’s railway platform, over a kilometre long, was listed in a section on edifices and constructions.

Years later, I took a train to Calcutta that stopped at Kharagpur. As the station approached I grew tensely excited, for the longest platform on the planet was to me the equivalent of a world heritage site. The train was late and the January night cold and misty. I got off onto the famous platform, walked as far as the engine, and stared into the distance. The shelf of concrete stretched further than I could see. Afraid the train would start rolling again, I returned to the seat and gawked through a window as we travelled the platform’s length. When I settled back, a question popped into my mind for the first time. Why on earth had they made a platform so much longer than the longest passenger train? I assumed there was a reason, but I’ve never been able to discover it.

Glocal pride

Kharagpur is no longer the Everest of train platforms, having been surpassed by Gorakhpur a few years ago. Gorakhpur’s residents celebrated news of their taking possession of a world record when its 1.3 km platform was inaugurated. In interviews, they said they were proud because the town would no longer be seen as a dead-end mofussil. No news reports mentioned why such a long platform was necessary, or even helpful.

The Kharagpur experience made me realise that records could be meaningful or purposeless. The feats of Mihir Sen and our hockey team, achieved against strong competition in widely popular athletic disciplines, were meaningful, while the railway platform and Sridhar Chillal’s fingernails, (which had grown so long, they fused together rendering one hand unusable) struck me as falling in the latter category. After the Limca Book of Records began to be published, along with an accompanying television show, Indians developed an affinity for purposeless feats. Individuals specialised in doing things that nobody in their right mind would want to do, such as chewing light bulbs or staying in a cage full of snakes or cycling backwards.

Since 1984, Siachen has held a place in the book of records as the world’s highest battlefield. It seems like a record that is obviously meaningful. Hundreds of lives have been lost on the glacier, tens of thousands of crores of rupees spent on maintaining troops there. Surely, we ought to be proud of the valour and determination of our soldiers, battling the elements as well as the enemy for decades. And yet, why are they there at all? In 1972, a Line of Control was established as part of the Simla Accord that followed the Bangladesh war. The map makers divided peaks and valleys carefully, till they reached a point where no human habitation could conceivably spring up. At that point they just made the general remark that the line of control would continue north. Indians assumed this meant due north, and Pakistan and the United States decided it meant continuing along the route as marked all the way to the Karakorum Pass, which meant going north-east rather than due north. To assert its own interpretation, Pakistan began permitting mountaineering expeditions into the zone. India responded by sending troops to occupy the barren wedge.

Like an absurdist film

The Indian action was justifiable in and off itself, but appears not to have been thought through. What were the troops supposed to do once up there? Apparently guard a place in perpetuity that nobody but extreme sports enthusiasts would ever want to visit, and which had no economic value. Soldiers have been posted there in rotation these past 32 years, living in misery, suffering hypothermia and frostbite, all for a wilderness of interest only to Doctor Strangeloves obsessed with strategic heights. As the globe has warmed and the glacier retreated, it has not made life on Siachen any more comfortable, for the change in degrees Celsius is marginal, but appears to have increased the land’s perilousness, and not just for Indians. Two years ago, an avalanche buried 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians in the Gayatri sector not far from the glacier.

In retrospect, it’s obvious India should have tried diplomacy instead of launching a preemptive military operation. It’s also clear to those of us who would put the world’s highest battlefield in the category of purposeless records, that we should try to extricate ourselves as fast as possible, cleaning up what we can of the toxic mess we have made in a formerly pristine ecosystem. When I read about the avalanche last week, I thought of Bob Dylan’s words, slightly paraphrased, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?”

Each death makes the Siachen conflict more absurd to people like me. Those who consider Siachen profoundly meaningful, though, think very differently. To them, each death hallows that land further, obliging us to defend it with more soldiers and more resources, for anything less would be a betrayal of those who gave the last full measure of devotion on those icy mountains. For over three decades, the assertive nationalists have has won the popular vote, and India has remained more interested in celebrating martyrdom than in reducing the need for sacrifice. It will be a long while before Siachen is returned to those who had sole possession of it for millennia, the snow leopards and ibexes.

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India vs Sri Lanka: Boys in Blue aim to bolster credentials ahead of World T20

India vs Sri Lanka: Boys in Blue aim to bolster credentials ahead of World T20
Photo Credit: Craig Golding/AFP
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After the convincing 3-0 win in last month’s Twenty20 series in Australia, the home series against Sri Lanka that starts on Tuesday must seem like a mere formality for an Indian side high on confidence. However, if history suggests anything at all, this series will be anything but a stroll for the home side.

India have a 3-3 record against Sri Lanka in this format, but it is their World Cup record against the islanders that will prove worrisome for MS Dhoni’s men. Rewind to the 2014 World T20 final – it was Lasith Malinga’s men who broke their final hoodoo to triumph over Dhoni’s boys in Dhaka.

The Indians did not fare much better in the 2010 World T20 when they succumbed to a last-ball finish in Gros Islet, St. Lucia in a group stage match. Being played a mere month before the World T20, this series against the world’s No 3 T20 side is a good chance for the home side to prove their title credentials, especially considering that they have been drafted into a tough group alongside Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan.

For one man in particular, this series will be more about redemption than anything else. Yuvraj Singh endured a horror show against the Lankans in the 2014 final, eking out a 21-ball 11 during the most crucial part of the innings, leading to India sub-par total.

Back in the squad and having had a fairly decent series against Australia, the Punjab left-hander will look to settle scores once and for all. The 33-year-old looks like he has got a new lease of life but he will still have to perform to retain hopes of getting into the final World Cup T20 squad. Fail to do so, and no doubt, the vultures will start circling again.

Finding the right combination

India’s best player in Australia, Virat Kohli, has been given a well-deserved rest. This will give captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni the chance to tinker with his middle-order to find his best combination. Although Suresh Raina, Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Dhoni pick themselves in the squad based on past exploits and current form, India’s middle order still remains a worry with the finisher’s positions – numbers five, six and seven far from settled.

Shikhar Dhawan for one will be looking to cement his place in the final XI for the World Twenty20. The opener has had an up-and-down season so far. With Ajinkya Rahane, Yuvraj Singh, Ravindra Jadeja and new boy Hardik Pandya all jostling for places, the competition is fierce.

Pawan Negi, the 23-year-old rookie who was selected for this series in place of Kohli, must be feeling confident after being sold for a whopping Rs 8.5 crore at the Indian Premier League auction on Saturday. Negi did well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, where he scored 173 runs for Delhi and bagged six wickets in nine matches. Rishi Dhawan, Gurkeerat Singh Man and Umesh Yadav miss out, while Manish Pandey and Bhuvneshwar Kumar get a look in.

A return of two veterans

This will also be an intriguing tale of two returning 36-year-old pacers. While Ashish Nehra played all the three T20 matches against Australia, Dilhara Fernando will return to the Sri Lankan squad after almost two years on the back of his performances in the domestic Premier T20 tournament. Fernando finished as the third highest wicket-taker with 11 wickets at an economy rate of 8.40.

His experience will be key considering that Malinga and Mathews are out owing to injuries and the Lankans just lost a recent T20 series to New Zealand 2-0. Leading the side in Malinga’s absence will be Dinesh Chandimal. An injury to Tillakaratne Dilshan also means that wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella has been called up to the squad and most probably will play the first match.

One player to watch out for will be middle-order batsman Dasun Shanaka, who set the domestic T20 tournament alight with his performances. Spinner Ajantha Mendis still does not find a place despite a good show with the ball (12 wickets) in the same tournament.

In comparison with the World Twenty20 and the Asia Cup thereafter, this may look like a low-key series. But, Dhoni will not mind – it gives him an opportunity to play around with his team and figure out his winning combination. In many ways, this will be the perfect starter for the delectable main course that is coming up next month.

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Enter the Dragon: Under President Xi, China looks to achieve world domination – in football

Enter the Dragon: Under President Xi, China looks to achieve world domination – in football
Photo Credit: Alejandro Pagni / AFP
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Earlier this week, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan’s dreams of glory faded as the club exited from the preliminaries of the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, suffering an unforgiving 6-0 defeat against China’s Shandong Luneng FC. Neither the elimination nor the manner of capitulation caused particular disgruntlement among the Indian players or fans, but the result did highlight China’s lofty footballing potential, originating from both a historical and political context.

Football in China is not a recent phenomenon. In the third century BC during the Han dynasty, cuju, or kick-ball, was a leather ball game between two teams on a marked pitch with goals at two ends. Kicking was a key form of propulsion. Emperor Wu Di was both an aficionado and connoisseur, according to historical accounts.

Cuju might have been rudimentary, but China was the cradle of the earliest forms of football. China’s early settled cities and social hierarchies allowed for a framework wherein spontaneous play became organised and institutionalised. Yet the historical importance of the Chinese for football never translated into much in today’s global game.

For years, football has been a synonym for abject failure in China. Serbian coach Bora Milutinović, a doyen of international football, guided China’s team to the 2002 World Cup, but Lóngzhī Duì ,or Team Dragon, finished bottom of Group C with a goal difference of -9 after matches against Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica. Chinese clubs also failed to make much of an impact internationally.

Xi Jinping embraces the beautiful game

Then came President Xi Jinping and, with him, an insatiable desire to propel China onto football’s world stage. The president is a self-declared football fan – of the Manchester United inclination. In 1983, he attended a friendly between China and Watford in Shanghai. The London club’s comfortable 5-1 victory must have been traumatic for Xi: in 2011 he proposed a goal-orientated vision for his country. The Chinese president listed three ambitions, all football-related: to qualify for the World Cup, to host international football’s biggest jamboree and, ultimately, to win it.

Those Greek dreams speak of a larger narrative of Chinese nation-building. As an editorial in China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper pointed out:

“Dreams have power, and the constant jarring reality of Chinese football threatens nothing less than the Chinese ability to dream of a more powerful nation.”

Football is a reflection of the president’s profound insecurities that, notwithstanding the republic’s great strides forward, China remains a B-list power, shunned for its many peculiarities and deemed unfit to join an elite club of countries that matter.

For Xi, football is a soft-power tool to mitigate the nagging fear that China’s quest for hegemony might never materialise, but rather fizzle out and be absorbed by the open and integrated global order. Football is required by the Chinese administration to rule with more legitimacy, for increased geopolitical standing and projection of power, according to Xu Guoqi, a Harvard-educated historian at the University of Hong Kong.

Football neatly fits in to the everyman image Xi has been cultivating since he became president in 2012. Yet Xi’s self-proclaimed football love is more than just hoopla.

A rapid resurgence

Chinese club football is improving drastically with Guangzhou Evergrande a prime exponent. They won the Chinese Super League or CSL five consecutive times and rose steadily to become a continental powerhouse, winning the AFC Champions League under Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Club World Cup was still a step too far as they failed to muster any pugnacity in the semi-finals against FC Barcelona’s triangulated game and Luis Suarez’s goal-poaching instincts.

In the January transfer window, Guangzhou signed Colombian midfielder Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid for £31.5 million, 2016’s highest fee. Ramires, Elkeson and Gervinho also completed high-profile moves to inject the CSL with star ethos and quality. At this rate, China will become the biggest non-European league, overtaking the Major League Soccer, with healthy average attendances of 22,000 and a television rights deal package worth £850 million over the next five seasons.

The CSL may form the basis for a stronger national team, together with a grassroots level movement. By 2017, about 20,000 football-themed schools will be opened with the aim of educating and producing more than 100,000 players. They might be part of a future generation of Chinese star players. Mohun Bagan and the rest of the football world may want to take note: China’s footballing power is not to be taken lightly.

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