FLAT EARTH

Seoul brothers

News that North Korea, under pressure from the US, has apologised to the South Koreans for sending a spy submarine into their waters reinforces my theory that it is far more useful to see inter-Korean relations in terms of family dynamics than as a conventional diplomatic dialogue.

The impression that North Koreans are fanatical communist automatons, while their southern counterparts are rational, democracy-loving individualists, is more than a little misleading. The northerners have not resigned from the human race - they are simply forced to conceal their true feelings behind an appearance of hysterical devotion to their leadership. The southerners, as I discovered on a visit to their half of the peninsula, can be almost as stern, single-minded and regimented, especially when it comes to inter-Korean relations.

It makes more sense to see the two Koreas as brothers whose enmity is simply deepened by their similarities, with the post-Cold War US as reluctant father figure. This explains the constant "peace" offers aimed at impressing Washington while beingdesigned for rejection by the other side, thereby making them look bad. It also accounts for South Korean fury when the US agrees to talk directly to the North. (What lies is he telling Daddy about me?)

There is some optimism that the latest apology, followed by the prompt return of the ashes of the armed infiltrators aboard the submarine, will lead to more fruitful dialogue across the demilitarised zone. But it is not a good sign that the North refused to say "sorry" directly to the South. I cannot help but picture two small boys being separated by their father and promising through gritted teeth to behave, while still trying to kick each others' shins when they think Daddy isn't looking.

Blackballed

The case of the two British nurses accused of killing an Australian colleague in Saudi Arabia has cast renewed light on the kingdom's extraordinary sexual apartheid. It is not just that you have to play tennis behind high walls; every private home is a walled compound, to preserve purdah.

And apartheid seems the only appropriate word when you see the metal grilles which keep women at the back of the bus, or the screened-off corner of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant reserved for female customers. I penetrated one of these enclosures when, at the time of the Gulf War, I joined half-a-dozen Western hacks, one of them female, in search of something to eat. The proprietor, not knowing what to do, showed us into the women's section, where our arrival caused some consternation: the sole woman in our party, with her close-cropped hair and combat trousers, did not look adequate reason for the rest of us to be there.

The problem with the system is that while those within it may be protected, any woman outside it is considered fair game. On another occasion I found the men's and women's national ten-pin bowling teams from the Philippines were staying in my hotel, which housed Riyadh's only bowling alley. When the women came out in short skirts to practise, every young buck for miles around converged on the hotel. The testosterone-heavy scrum became so bad that the police were called. Instead of telling the men to go home they ordered the women bowlers to quit. I don't know why I expected anything else.

Eureka ... sigh

If freezing weather and grey skies are getting you down, it may or may not improve your mood to learn that according to a new study unhappy people may do better work than cheerful ones.

Geir Kaufmann, the psychology professor in charge, said cheerful test subjects overestimated their own ability, underestimated the complexity of problems and opted for easy or obvious answers. The glum were less confident, looked deeper and found more creative solutions.

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence," says Prof Kaufmann, "of people doing their best work while depressed. Einstein has said he was in a sad mood the day he came up with the basis of his theory of relativity."

To test the effect of mood on performance, he divided 91 students into three groups. One was shown an upbeat film, while the second sat through something much more depressing. The third group watched a documentary of neutral emotional content.

The professor says his results do not mean employers should do even more to depress their workforce, since upbeat workers are better at many tasks, including group "brainstorming" sessions. He declined to say which movies the students had been shown, though since this research was conducted in Norway, anything by its native son, Ibsen, would have done for the depressing bit.

If national playwrights are any guide, come to think of it, Norway and Sweden (home of Strindberg) should be economic world-beaters.

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