Tales from the strange North

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/ask-a-north-korean-defectors-talk-the-country-we-love-to-hate/news-story/c741207924085b5b012bc5eb88284a92

Appearing in the Weekend Australian, Review magazine, 5-6 May 2018

 

Defectors spill the beans on starving Hermit Kingdom

 

Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation

By Daniel Tudor

Tuttle Publishing, 288pp, $29.99

North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate

By Loretta Napoleoni

UWA Publishing, 250pp, $19.99

 

It seems to hang on the hazy horizon, communicating by way of bizarre ­announcements and occasional explosions.

North Korea is such an unlikely country that it might be a parallel dimension, and would even be faintly comical if nuclear weapons were not in the mix.

The recent thaw in relations has shed some light on the power structures, but ­little is known about how ordinary people lead their lives.

Daniel Tudor’s remarkable book is a start on changing that. It is based on a weekly column, Ask A North Korean, published by an American online newspaper based in Seoul. The column invites readers to put questions to North Kor­ean defectors, and it is hugely popular in South Korea. The book is a series of in-depth interviews with four defectors, covering everything from politics to fashion.

Ask A North KoreanOne surprise is that so many people have ­escaped from North Korea. There are more than 30,000 living in Seoul and many more in China and elsewhere.

Perhaps it should not be surprising: a central theme of the book is the raw toughness of living in North Korea. Outside the major cities, hunger is an everyday reality; in the cities it is a little better but there is still not much food security.

The good news, such as it is, is that the economy is slowly improving. The famine of the 1990s was a turning point for the country. Shortages of everything brought the black ­market into the open, and a wave of small businesses sprang up to provide what the lumbering state-owned enterprises could not.

The government tolerated the move, knowing there was no alternative. Eventually, something like a private-sector economy running parallel to the state-managed system developed. It was enough to keep the country afloat, at least, and it has continued to grow.

One of the biggest businesses is the trade in television programs and news from South Korea and China, mainly on USB sticks, which has undercut the government’s monopoly on information. Another booming activity is the sale of home-brewed liquor — a way to escape from the grinding reality, presumably. Second-hand clothes from Japan are also big sellers.

For its part the government does not seem to be particularly interested in economic management. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, sometimes talks about “juche”, a loose idea of national self-reliance, and he seems to see small private businesses as fitting into the framework. He also says, according to several of the interviewees, that nuclear weapons are more important than food.

That, and the raising of the Kim clan to near-divine status. The rules of their veneration keep changing, leading to a level of confusion on what is required.

This can be dangerous, as any hint of a lack of love for the leader can mean a one-way trip to a prison camp, not just for the individual but for their entire family. It is like Stalin’s terror as performed by the Keystone cops. Most people just keep their heads down, go through the ­motions, and bow when they are supposed to.

The defectors in the book have little to say about the North Korean elite, mainly because it is largely separate from the general population.

They note, however, that since the economy began to privatise, many people in the circle around the Kim family have become very rich, usually from skimming a portion of government business.

This group is known as donju — “masters of money”. It appears that no one believes in socialism or juche any more.

For the elite, the goal is more money. For the Kims, it is staying in power. For most of the population, it is surviving.

If Ask a North Korean is the view from the bottom up, Loretta Napoleoni takes a different perspective in North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. She claims the book is ­“dispassionate” but this is hard to accept. In fact, she has never been in the country (according to the book’s publishers), even though she makes a variety of claims about what she calls the North’s “glorious” past.

Some are strikingly odd: in her account of the Korean War, for example, she somehow neglects to mention the 300,000 Chinese ­soldiers who came in on the North’s side.

There might be a reason for this: she sees the North-South conflict as a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, and acknowled­ging China’s involvement would upset her ­paradigm.

This is not to say she wholeheartedly supports the current North Korean regime. She calls juche “the Scientology of totalitarianism” and points to the government’s involvement in the global drug trade and other illicit activities.

Nevertheless, Napoleoni seems to fall into that caste of European academics who take the view that any enemy of the US is at least ­worthy of a sympathetic hearing. She applauds Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader) for “outsmarting” Bill Clinton on a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which the US ­promised aid in return for North Korea freezing its nuclear program. In fact, North Korea reneged on the deal before the ink was dry, which Napoleoni sees as pretty clever.

Interestingly, she says sanctions will never be effective and any diplomatic contact is unlikely. Given this, it is hard to know what ­Napoleoni would make of the events of the past few months. She would probably say Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he just happened to bumble along at the right time.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Bellicose language, tougher sanctions, and a willingness to sit down to talk about nukes are the new elements Trump brought to the game, and the approach seems to have worked. How it will play out is still not known, but it might be appropriate to give some credit where it is due.

 

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Teacher learning looks for new course

Appearing in Financial Review, Special Report: Your child’s education, 4 September 2017

 

Structural impediments holding back professional learning

 

Teacher development is a key element in improving education outcomes but there are structural impediments holding the profession back, according to experts in the field.

Lawrence Ingvarson“There is no shortage of evidence showing the link between ongoing training and student results,” says Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, Principal Research Fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research. “There are plenty of courses and classes for teachers but the problem in Australia is that there is no real system or organisation to it, and, currently, no valid and reliable means for recognition of outstanding teachers.”

At present, primary and secondary school teachers are required, when seeking re-registration, to show that they have undertaken a minimum of 100 hours of professional learning over five years. This is overseen by a statutory body in each state, and the course a teacher does must be approved by the body.

“The theory of the requirement, which relates to professional standards, is to keep teachers aware of new advances in their field and in teaching methods,” says Dr Ingvarson. “In practice, it’s all pretty vague, with the criteria for approval of courses unclear. Most of all, there is a lack of clarity as to where a teacher needs to improve, how they can improve, and how they know if they have improved. Feedback is vital for professional learning, but rarely available.”

At the school level, professional learning is taken very seriously in some schools, especially upper-tier independent schools. In some cases, they even have administrative staff dedicated to professional learning, and the school has the resources to give teachers the time to undertake training.

“That’s fine, but those schools with fewer resources can have a real problem,” Dr Ingvarson says. “Their budgets are already under pressure, and if they have to engage a relief teacher to fill in for a few days when the regular teacher is away, it can quickly soak up available funds. So you can see how professional learning can slip down the priorities list.”

Even when a teacher improves their capability they can find it very difficult to implement what they have learned. A change in methods can be disruptive, and can take some time to show benefits. Teachers are often locked into a set curriculum and an established assessment system, which discourages new techniques.

Professional learning can take many forms, from full-time advanced degrees to short courses to online classes.

“There is an obvious interdependence between knowing more about subject content and improving your methods of communication and teaching,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Listening to lectures has its place but there also has to be practical work. Collaboration with other teachers is very valuable as a means of understanding students’ needs and engaging with them.”

While the diversity of learning opportunities has its advantages the downside is a lack of coherence. Many providers are privately-run training organisations, and the quality varies widely.

“At the moment, there is simply no feeling among teachers that they own the professional learning system,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Many providers see it as a way of making profits rather than tying what they offer to educational outcomes. When you compare that to the professional development system of, say, the accounting profession, where the industry associations play a key role, it should be no surprise that teachers feel that it is not there to serve them.”

One way to deal with the issue is a system of professional certification, to recognise teachers who have reached high levels of achievement through professional learning. There are moves under way to establish such a system through the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, although it is fragmented across states and employing authorities .

ACER recently examined the need for a rigourous national certification system in a major paper for the Business Council, and the response has been positive.

“Certification would be a critical way to promote widespread use of evidence-based practices,” Dr Ingvarson says. “At the same time, it would provide a means to improve pay rates for accomplished teachers. At the moment, the incentive for teachers to improve their capacity to do their job is weak.”

He believes that a certification system would offer a better career path for teachers and do much to improve the status of the profession. It would help to attract talented people into the profession and retain those who are there.

“Who really believes that a top salary for classroom teachers of about $90,000 means we place sufficient value on teachers’ work to attract the best university graduates?” he says. “Who really believes that the typical office spaces in which teachers are expected to prepare and assess student work are indicators of an attractive and esteemed profession?

“At present, the principles and values of professional learning are understood and recognised. The task now is to create a system to take it forward.”

 

Chinese characters

Appearing in In The Black, August 2107

 

The latest wave of Chinese immigrants who have come to Australia can be a crucial bridge between the two countries, according to Barry Li, a CPA who has made his home in Sydney but retains strong links with his homeland.

He has set out his views in a recent book, The New Chinese*, which examines the cultural differences between China and Australia, and offers advice on how to do business in China.Barry Li

He is well-placed to know. He came to Australia in 2004 after gaining a BA in Economics from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, planning to study for a Masters of Commerce degree at Macquarie University.

“It was hard to choose between China and Australia when I was younger,” he says. “My wife felt the same way, but when we found out we were going to raise a baby, we decided that Australia was definitely the better option.”

After a stint in PwC Sydney he now works as an auditor in the Audit Office of New South Wales. “I consider myself a very lucky person with the best boss in the world. My director Renee Meimaroglou has given me enormous support for writing this book during an audit busy season.”

Li notes that Chinese come to Australia for many different reasons, and since the mid-1990s, more and more of them chose to return after a period of study or work.

“A degree from an Australian university is very highly valued in China, and if you want to go up in the business sector you are expected to have overseas experience and proficiency in English. In accounting, Australia is seen as especially important because of its early adoption of international standards. The CPA designation also carries a great deal of weight professionally.”

Adapting to Australian business culture is not always easy for Chinese, whose education emphasises technical abilities rather than ‘soft’ skills. There is a deeply-ingrained deference for authority, whether it is government, teachers, or workplace superiors. In Australian workplaces and educational institutions, there is a greater willingness to ask questions, act independently, and try new approaches.

Li decided that he could use his experience to help others by taking up a mentoring role within the CPA framework. This eventually led to him becoming the chairman of the CPA NSW Young Professionals Committee. He sees mentoring as a good way to show Chinese and other immigrants how they can better express themselves and adapt to new social norms.

He believes that many Australians do not really understand China and the Chinese. Many people think of China as still in the early economic development stage even though several decades of remarkable growth have given it a huge number of aspiring middle-class consumers. In fact, a major issue in China is that everything, especially property, has become extremely expensive.

“It is difficult to buy property in the major cities in China so many people look overseas. Often, several generations of a family will pool money to buy a property, which means they are able to pay much more than a couple depending on their own income and savings. My wife and I encountered this when we were trying to buy our first home, so I can understand the frustration of people who feel they are being priced out of the property market by investors from China. On the other hand, you can look at that desire to invest as a vote of confidence in Australia.”

Li believes that Chinese immigration to Australia will remain strong for the foreseeable future, and that the economic linkages will continue to increase. “Australia offers excellent investment and work opportunities as well as wonderful quality of life,” he says. “I remain proud of my Chinese heritage but Australia is a great place to call my home.”

 

* The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia, Barry Li, published by Wiley, $29.95.

  Dine show displays breadth, versatility, and creativity

Appearing on Culture Concept site, July 2017

 

 

Jim Dine is sometimes categorised as a Pop artist but a new exhibition of his prints at the National Gallery Victoria (International) shows the real breadth and creativity of his work. Jim Dine: A Life in Print displays 100 works covering 45 years. The prints are part of a gift of 249 works donated by the artist to the NGV collection.

Dine originally became known as one of the group of New York artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, although he never saw his work as ‘Pop’. But the grouping is understandable, as Dine often chose everyday objects as his subject matter. He produced, for example, a long series of prints of dressing gowns, originally derived from an advertisement.Dine Robes

At another level, he also produced extremely realistic drawings and prints of tools, such as hammers, saws, axes, and even nutcrackers. This interest in mechanical processes, which also informed his precise attitude towards printmaking, stemmed from his upbringing: he was raised by his grandparents, who owned a hardware store.

However, as his work evolved through the 1980s he became more experimental, combining printing techniques to obtain certain effects and “interfering” (his word) in the printing process to produce one-off rather than replicated prints. He also began to use innovative materials. Blue Crommelynck Gate (1982) is a lithograph printed with black and silver ink on a surface painted with synthetic polymer, for instance. In this sense, Dine presaged the current trends of printmaking towards mono-prints and the fusion of commercial with fine art techniques.Blue Crommely Gate 1982

Along the way, Dine drew on subjects as varied as skulls, birds and the Eiffel Tower (he is now based in Paris) for prints and drawings. He has also produced portraits and self-portraits, usually as lithographs.

Even in his eighties, Dine continues to create prints, as well as paintings and sculptures. He has, he says, a wealth of ideas for new works and no plan to stop creating.

Dine self 2008 litho

 

 

The show Jim Dine: A Life in Print is on display at the NGV International until 15 October 2017.

 

Living with the dragon

China Matters: Getting It Right For Australia

By Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson

LaTrobe University Press, $30, 256 pages, ISBN 9781863959179

 

No-one disputes that China matters to Australia, and is going to matter more in the future. The issue, according to China-watchers Gill, from ANU, and Jakobson, of the Lowy Institute, is how the relationship can be successfully managed and developed.

They spend the first section of the book showing how intertwined China and Australia have become through trade. China and the Chinese people appear to have good attitudes towards Australia but their greater emphasis is on assuming a pre-eminent strategic position in Asia and the world. Gill and Jakobson note, for example, that special deals on trade can easily turn into coercive levers when political disputes arise. Businesses should take note of this, even while trying to develop as many connections as possible, building on past successes to move up the value chain. Within Australia, there needs to be more emphasis on learning Chinese in schools and more focus on China from Canberra.

A crucial question that Gill and Jakobson ask is how to hold onto Australian principles while deepening engagement with China. There is no simple template but they put forward some illustrative examples, such as reiterating that Australian citizens of Chinese background are subject to Australian law, not Chinese law. Equally, Australia should continue to speak out about violations of human rights in China, even if it causes discomfort in Beijing. Honesty is an important part of a good relationship.

China Matters should be read by anyone doing business with China. It is not always an easy book, but it is an important one.

China Matters

 

Glory days

Appearing in the Australian – Review, 1 July 2017

What Happens on Tour, Stays on Tour

Pitched Battle: In the frontline of the 1971 Springbok tour of Australia

By Larry Writer

Scribe, $35, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925321616

 

1971 is not quite long enough ago to have assumed the neutrality of history but is beyond the clear memory of most people. Presumably, Writer’s intention in Pitched Battle is to reiterate a political conflict of the time before it slips into the mist.

For those not familiar with the period, in the early 1970s South Africa represented the apex – nadir might be the better term – of discrimination, with the system of apartheid dividing the country along racial lines, including in sport. Writer emphasises that rugby union was tied firmly into the Afrikaner political culture, with its emphasis on toughness, grit, and bloody-minded muscle. And the South African team, the Springboks, was very good at it.

Pitched BattleFor the left-leaning group of Australian protesters at the centre of Pitched Battle, operating under the rubric AAM, for Anti-Apartheid Movement, the issue was that a racially-chosen team, representing a racially-based government, should not be welcome in Australia. A central figure was Meredith Burgmann, who provides a good deal of first-hand comment throughout the book (she later became a senior Labor politician). On the other side of the debate were conservative forces arguing that sport and politics should be kept separate, and that singling out South Africa made little sense when teams from communist regimes, for example, were welcomed.

It is hard to not admire the principle and tenacity of the AAM, especially since opinion polls at the time did not show much support for them (although the numbers were often confusing). Drawing on the lessons of the American civil rights movement, they sought to be disruptive but non-violent. Some of their ideas to interfere with Springbok games even had a streak of humour – the plan to use a remote-controlled model airplane to drop smoke bombs on the field would have been something to see, but unfortunately it did not get off the ground.

As the tour got under way the protests gained momentum and numbers, spreading from the sports grounds into the streets and even to the hotels where the South African players stayed. Some of the members of the AAM were not unsympathetic to the players, who had been invited to play football and now could not leave their rooms without being spat on.

 

One problem facing the AAM organisers was that there was no way to monitor everyone who demonstrated in the name of opposing apartheid. Throughout the Springbok tour, police would confiscate tennis balls stuffed with tacks and broken glass; screwdrivers; knives, and lead pipes filled with gravel. Considering the arsenals of the combatants in the demonstrations and riots that would ensue all over Australia, the injury tolls should have been no surprise.

 

Writer should, one feels, have given this issue more attention. Who were these people, and what were they trying to do? While his focus on the liberal activists of the AAM gives the book a narrative coherence it means that many players in the story remains offstage. Writer is clearly a highly capable researcher, so why did he not seek to contact some of the radicals?

Unsurprisingly, the violence begat violence, with militants from the far-right as well as thuggish football fans wading in. As the tour ground on – the Boks had a consistent winning record, by the way – the atmosphere grew increasingly poisonous. And then the new-ish Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, upped the ante by declaring a state of emergency, which gave the police almost untrammelled powers. Law and order, and no matter the number of broken bones.

The last leg of the tour was relatively quiet, as if everyone was worn out. The Boks left quietly but it was clear they would not be returning. The story, however, was not quite over. The South African cricket team had been invited to tour Australia. Which brings Sir Donald Bradman – yes, the Donald Bradman – into the book. As the chair of the Australian Cricket Board, he was initially inclined to continue with the invitation but was keenly aware of the devastating consequences of the rugby tour. He contacted Burgmann to seek her views, and there was a significant correspondence between them.

Eventually, Bradman travelled to South Africa, and met with the country’s Prime Minister John Vorster. Vorster intimated that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and therefore incapable of appreciating cricket, which prompted an angry Bradman to ask Vorster if he had ever heard of Garfield Sobers.

One way or another, the invitation was withdrawn, and South Africa found itself effectively locked out of international sport.

Did this constitute a win? The AAM activists seemed very willing to pat themselves on the back but it should be remembered that the apartheid system rolled on for another twenty years. It eventually collapsed due its own internal contradictions and mounting demographic strains, not because its sports teams could not come to Australia. This is a basic point, and it needs examination. The story that Writer tells is interesting enough but there is a yawning hole where the book’s conclusion should be.

Maybe Writer would say it was another brick in the wall, a symbolic victory. Ah, symbolism: is it what politics is really about or the last refuge of the unconvincing? Bit of both, perhaps. In the end, Pitched Battle is not a bad book, but a willingness to cast a broader net, and provide a wider historical view, would have made it a much better one.

New tech, Red Teams, High-flier Women

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2017

 

Megatech: Technology in 2050 

By Daniel Franklin

Profile Books, $33, 242 pages, ISBN 9781781254622

MegatechIt was Winston Churchill who said that the future will be just one damned thing after another. True, but this has not stopped people from trying to foretell what is coming down the road. Franklin is the executive editor of the Economist magazine, a position which allowed him to corral thinkers as varied as Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek, philanthropist Melinda Gates and sci-fi writer Nancy Kress. Each of the 20 essays in this book seeks to extrapolate existing trends, looking not just at technology itself but also its broader implications.

A number of writers point out that past predictions have often turned out to be hilariously wrong, but they nevertheless chance their arm to examine the future of biotechnology and bottom-up patterns of innovation. Others delve into the way technology is likely to affect agriculture (big but risky advances) and energy (renewables look good but there are still bugs in the system). Several contributors focus on the impact of megatech on humanity, including the ethics of artificial intelligence. The tone is generally optimistic but everyone acknowledges that there will be losers from all this fast-wave change.

This is interesting stuff, and enjoyable to read. Perhaps we will reach 2050 and look back at this book and laugh, but in the meantime it offers good food for thought.

 

 

Red Teaming: Transform Your Business by Thinking Like the Enemy

By Bryce Hoffman

Piatkus, $33, 279 pages, ISBN 9780349410418

If only we had thought about what might go wrong. It’s a common refrain in everything from failed military campaigns to disastrous product launches. In this fascinating book, Hoffman argues that a ‘Red Team’, with the mandate of questioning assumptions, gaming alternatives, and asking what competitors might do, can do much to reveal crucial flaws.Red Teaming

The idea comes from military and security agencies, although there are a few businesses that have started to apply the lessons, so there are enough cases from which Hoffman can draw lessons. Good Red Teamers are usually people with quick intellects and sceptical perspectives, although they need a firm leader and a clear brief to keep them on track. Hoffman examines cases where Red Teams have helped companies avoid major blunders, as well as cases where, had they been used, disasters might have been averted.

Most of all, there has to be buy-in and support from the top, both for the concept and the team. Senior executives must also understand that Red Teaming is not a way to avoid taking any action but a means to make plans better.

 

Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World

By Joann Lublin

Harper Business, $50, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062407474

As the business news editor of the Wall Street Journal, Lublin is in a good position to see how much progress women have made in the corporate world in the past thirty years – and how much remains to be done. In Earning It she interviews 52 women who have risen to the top, including Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; and Brenda Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee. All of the cases are American but there is a sense that the experiences of these women are universal.

Earning ItMost of these stories are about success against the odds, and there are recurring themes of sexism and discrimination. The response of these women was to work hard (harder than the men, several say), know the business to the last detail, and make tough life choices. Lublin often discusses her own experiences as well, giving the book a personal dimension.

These women are admirable but younger women might have trouble with the idea that the answer to sexism is to out-play the sexists. Lublin’s advice regarding harassment – avoid the men doing the harassing – might also rankle. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring stories here, and without these pioneers there would not be a path for others to follow.

 

 

The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Piatkus, $33, 283 pages, ISBN 9780349412481

In the war for talent many people are fighting unarmed, says Chamorro-Premuzic, a HR consultant who specialises in scientific analysis of recruitment, promotion, and retention issues. There are plenty of tools available but many senior executives ignore them, trusting their gut even after it has been repeatedly wrong.

Chamorro-Premuzic notes that psychometric testing has developed to a very sophisticated level in the past decade, and he provides a good round-up of the academic research. He also cites analyses of corporate performance which shows that a relatively small number of outstanding people are responsible for the organisation’s success. The key is to locate them early and nurture them to bring out their best. Unfortunately, many companies fail at measuring job performance and so have little idea of who has solid potential.

Chamorro-Premuzic supplies some important metrics, noting that the common attributes of good performers are likeability, ability and drive. Psychometrics are useful at the recruitment stage but for promotions better tools are formal interviews, performance assessments, and personality tests. In particular, strong performers respond well to structured coaching, with measurable improvements in results.

Some organisations might find Chamorro-Premuzic’s ideas hard to apply but his basic thrust is sound. After all, good management requires good measurement.

The Talent Delusion