8 JANAURY 2016
North Korea’s provocative move
The underground nuclear test by North Korea that apparently used a hydrogen bomb has expectedly aggravated tensions in East Asia. South Korea, which called the explosion an “unpardonable provocation”, has already cancelled cross-border initiatives. Japan has termed it a “serious threat” to its national security. Most major global powers, from the United States to Russia and even China, have condemned the explosion. The provocation is likely to invite more economic punitive measures by the United Nations Security Council. The North Korean economy is going through a tough phase, and any further sanctions would jeopardise it further. Why Kim Jong-un took the extreme step now is anybody’s guess, though the move itself was not surprising given the regime’s sinister, paranoid ways of operating. Ever since Mr. Kim became North Korea’s leader after his father’s death in 2011, he has flexed the country’s military muscle and caused provocations without hinting at any tangible foreign policy goal. He ordered the country’s third nuclear test, which led directly to additional UN sanctions. Tensions escalated between the two Koreas last year after they exchanged artillery fire. With the latest hydrogen bomb explosion claim, he has upped the ante in this game of provocations.
Mr. Kim’s aim could be to tighten his grip of power over the state. The number of executions in North Korea reportedly rose under his watch, triggering speculation over whether the regime is facing internal strains. In 2013, Mr. Kim had ordered the execution of his uncle and former mentor. He may also be playing a high-stakes diplomatic game for an Iran-like deal where he could swap his country’s nuclear arsenal for international recognition and economic partnership. The third and more likely explanation is that Mr. Kim is sending a message to South Korea and the West that his regime is ready to go to any extreme in the wake of military hostilities. This clearly demonstrates the failure of the nuclear diplomacy which the U.S. and other major powers were involved in for the past several years. Whatever Mr. Kim’s real intentions, his moves come at the cost of regional stability, and pose dangerous portents for the world. The only country that could reason with North Korea and persuade it to join back talks is China. Even for Beijing, despite its historical ties with Pyongyang, it is a daunting task. Mr. Kim does not seem to be particularly interested in the “China-ally” tag. In September, he refused an invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend celebrations marking the end of the Second World War. Four years after coming to power, he is yet to visit Beijing. Despite his detachment and potential militarism, the world doesn’t really have any option but to resume talks with Pyongyang. China has the historical responsibility to lead the efforts to solve the crisis on the Korean peninsula, much like what the Russians did in securing the Iran deal.
For justice in equal measure
News that Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt will be released by the end of February after serving a five-year prison term for being in possession of an AK-56 assault rifle over 20 years ago will surely draw contrasting reactions from the film industry on the one hand and wider society on the other. His peers in filmdom and his legion of fans may see cause for great happiness in his impending release. However, there may be a larger section of society that may wonder whether justice will truly be served if Mr. Dutt, who is already seen to have enjoyed generous spells of furlough and parole while serving his sentence, is being treated in a special way by his release being advanced by about eight months. Given the widespread perception — reinforced by the recent acquittal of another film star, Salman Khan, in a hit-and-run case — that the system will work only to the advantage and benefit of celebrities, questions will naturally be asked whether Mr. Dutt is being treated preferentially. Arrested in the aftermath of the 1993 Mumbai blasts, he spent 18 months in prison before getting bail. In March 2013, the Supreme Court confirmed a lower court conviction, but reduced his jail term from six to five years. After being given time to wind up his film commitments, he began to serve the 42-month remainder of his term in May 2013. Even then, citing reasons as trite as that he was married and had children, and that he had depicted on screen a form of Gandhian protest, many had appealed for pardon on his behalf. The Maharashtra Governor, however, did not succumb to the demand for preferential treatment to him solely on the basis of his popularity.
In the normal course, a prisoner’s release eight months ahead of the completion of his term will not give rise to unusual scrutiny. Good behaviour is reason enough for routine remission for all convicts, and there may be no cause to suspect that Mr. Dutt has been chosen out of turn. Yet, the State government will have to be cautious and scrupulous in computing the exact number of days he is legally entitled to, mainly to dispel the popular impression that he is being favoured. The actor may have spent as many as 146 days on parole or furlough since May 2013. In law, a furlough is an entitlement earned by spending specified periods in jail, while parole is granted only in an emergency. Both are considered necessary to help prisoners maintain continuity in their family life and help them avoid the ill-effects of protracted incarceration. Comparisons are also bound to be drawn between Mr. Dutt’s case and that of Zaibunissa Kazi, a septuagenarian fellow-prisoner who is also serving a five-year term in the same case. It will only be fair to expect that the rules of remission will apply in equal measure to all prisoners regardless of their social stature or background.