Saturday, October 11, 2008

First hand glimpse into North Korea

During my first visit to North Korea, the commonly used short name for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or DPRK), I fully agreed with the statement that North Korea is the closest thing the world has to a hermetically sealed society.

With “no connection” for my BlackBerry, my laptop and other accessories which connect me to the rest of the world and which form an essential part of my everyday existence, I was face to face with skinny North Korean soldiers, wearing old Soviet-style uniforms at a North Korean customs and immigration centre. Under North Korean law of military first, every male must spend 10 years in the military. Women spend seven.

As I had followed the advice at the South Korean side of “Rules in North Korea are made to be followed,” with special emphasis on “no outside newspapers,” “no communication devices” and “no cameras with telescopic or long lenses,” the clearance came fast but with a stern warning to wear “the identity badge” all the time and “not to take” pictures of ordinary North Koreans.

The bus ride to Kaesong, the North Korean city was itself an experience. The buses being led by military escorts through a countryside with hardly any visible human presence except North Korean soldiers standing guard on empty roads along the route. When I asked about the presence of these soldiers, the North Korean guide emphatically pointed that those soldiers were there for our safety. But we could not take any pictures from the bus nor were allowed to take pictures anywhere except where we were designated to use the cameras.

Arriving in the city the downtown appeared like a post-card picture from the past, North Koreans hurrying to nowhere either walking or riding bikes. The bicycle riding lanes on both sides of the broad streets reminded me of North Europe but there were hardly any automobiles on the streets. Our buses and unmarked military vehicles were the only competitors for road space with bikes and pedestrians.

Everyone has their lapels adorned with pictures of late Kim II Sung and his son Kim Jung II. I had been warned earlier by the South Koreans not to but I still ask why do they (North Koreans) wear those. I escape only with a look and an explanation that these are signs of their loyalty and commitment to their country and people.

The most ironic part of the day is the lunch where a feast is provided: bowl of rice with 14 side dishes, served in heavy brass wares. After having read hundreds of reports about recent famine killing millions and there being a constant food scarcity, I feel nauseated at all this food.

The historic places in the city are quite well maintained and at every point there is more than one traditionally dressed North Korean girl giving out historic background punctuated with praise of the present regime.

Most of the public squares have a huge bust or a statue of the North Korean leader with inscriptions in the local language saying propaganda slogans like, “We are winning.” In a way that is true, as the North Korea uses its nuclear card with shrewd expertise of a gambler, the global forces including US have to keep changing its approach.

Tejinder Singh
in North Korea

(more in coming days)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Commissioner Kuneva proposes rights across EU for consumers

European shoppers were promised a new set of European Union (EU) wide rights with the European Commission's adoption on Wednesday (Oct 8) of the proposal for a directive on contractual rights for consumers.

The Commission proposals will empower European shoppers with a single, simple EU-wide set of rights. This will allow consumers to seek best value for their money anywhere in the EU without falling victim to diverging national rules and archaic European measures. The proposals confer rights to information before purchase, EU-wide protection against late delivery and non-delivery and a new 14-day cooling off period for distance and pressure sales. Consumers could also rely on EU-wide rules for returns, repairs, refunds and guarantees.

Meglena Kuneva, European Commissioner for consumer protection told journalists, “It is the most far reaching overhaul of consumer rights in 30 years,” adding, “At the same time, it will significantly reduce the burden on Europe's hard pressed business community.”

According to the Commission’s October Eurobarometer, the number of traders selling cross-border has declined from 29 percent to 21 percent since 2006 and although consumer confidence in cross-border shopping in another EU-country has improved, there is still a great potential for further internal market integration.


The proposals were welcomed by business organisations across Europe with EuroCommerce Secretary General, Xavier R. Durieu saying, “By tackling the legal divergences which stemmed from the old 'minimum-requirements' approach, both consumers and businesses will benefit from a clearer and therefore more predictable legal framework for EU consumer protection rules.”

Ernest-Antoine Seillière, President of BUSINESSEUROPE warned the European parliament saying, “it is essential that EU legislators avoid its dilution during the legislative process. In particular, we hope that the principle of mutual recognition will be fully integrated in the future debate on the proposal.”


The proposals will have to pass through the European parliament scrutiny before being adopted by the Member States. There was immediate welcome from the European parliament as European Liberal Democrat Leader Graham Watson said, “This is the start of a consumer protection revolution which will transform Europe's fragmented retail market into the level playing field it ought to be,” adding, “Thanks to modern technology better priced products are only a few clicks away but even in this virtual market real life barriers exist. It is time we give consumers better protection wherever they choose to take their custom.”

Toine Manders (VVD, the Netherlands), ALDE Coordinator on the IMCO Committee said in a statement: "A single market requires clear and common rules for consumers and businesses. The current patchwork of consumer legislation is a barrier for creating a real business to consumer internal market."

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP, Germany), Vice-Chairman of the IMCO Committee added: "This directive is an important step towards improving the trust of consumers in thesingle market. Markets cannot function properly without the trust of consumers. Because of this, consumers have not yet been able to fully benefit from the Single Market. I hope that this directive will enable consumers to be better informed, buy at better prices and have more choice."


Presenting the proposals, Commissioner Kuneva listed 12 priority areas as thus:

Tough rules on delivery within 30 days everywhere in the EU with insurance against damages, late delivery or non-delivery plus a money back in seven days,

No hidden charges with transparency rules made simple,

EU wide 14-day "cooling off" period and right of withdrawal for consumers,

New ban on default pre-ticked boxes – for example, for travel insurance, priority boarding and baggage,

A new "see through clause" to tackle the problem of omissions and National courts to be able to decide on the sanction depending on the scale of the omission– from refunds, to replacement or declaring a contract void,

No to pressure selling,

Distance clause covers all distances - closing all existing loopholes,

New transparent obligations like credit card blocking and the consumer must be told if you are dealing with an intermediary - as consumer rights will not apply,

EU consumer rights will be applied to mobile-commerce and tele-commerce,

A new EU Black list and Grey list of unfair and abusive contract terms,

EU-wide protection for online auctions,

At the point of sale, the consumer must be given all information about their rights.

Commissioner Kuneva concluded, “My job is to be consumer watchdog and i take it very seriously,” adding, “issues have been studied in detail for every country and for every item.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Obama takes it all

Hello readers!

I am not sure if this American Debate between McCain and Obama is worth any mention but as I watched it became more and more lopsided. Very badly moderated also, if I may add.

Loved the blog updating at CNN with Jonathan Mann inviting everyone like always and then doing the vanishing trick.

From experience with politicians, I thought Mc who is trailing, will come out and try some freshness but then as some followers of the debate pointed at the body language he did it in a strange "old" way and in the process looked empty in substance.

Knowing the position of Russia with its energy (gas to Europe and oil to globe) and its readiness to use strong arm-tactics as shown in Georgia who was egged on by the West but had to face the Big Bear hug alone :-) Georgia was promised NATO membership but never given at Bucharest Summit and today Mc again talked of seeing KGB in Putin's eyes. 
Will Americans fall for that kind of fear mongering? I hope not.

Not knowing one thing about Islam, the Bush administration has watered with American blood the fertile lands of Islamic society especially in Iraq to produce more jihadis.

And now Pakistan is going haywire and all that after pumping millions of American taxpayers' money there. As one Pakistani politician who is famous for taking more wickets in the cricket world then polling votes in elections (yes, you guessed fast bowler of yesteryears: Imran Khan) told me in a recent press conference at the European parliament that the focus has shifted. He said that the al-Qaeda is the real enemy and its time to get back the focus on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. (More about Imran's views in an earlier post).

More next time. Please feel free to post your comments.


Tejinder Singh

Sunday, October 5, 2008

EU proposes a month addition to maternity leave

The European Commission proposed last week to extend EU-wide mandatory maternity leave from 14 weeks to 18 weeks giving women “longer and better” maternity leave with full salary benefits. Today, maternity leave currently varies from 14 weeks in Germany to 18 months in Sweden, with many countries offering less than 18 weeks.

Aimed at improving the “work-life balance” of the Europeans, the proposals called for stronger protection against threat of dismissal and safeguards to make sure the person returns to the same job or an equivalent one after the maternity leave.

Presenting his social package in Brussels, Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities told journalists, “Our proposals to improve maternity leave will help women to combine work and family life, improving their and their family's quality of life.”

“Juggling work, family and private life is a huge challenge for millions of Europeans, men and women,” noted Spidla, adding, “But having children too often costs women their income and their job prospects. Only 65.5 percent of women with dependent children are in work, compared to 91.7 percent of men.”

Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, Conservative leader in the European Parliament, argued, “The best social policy for Europe is one that creates opportunities and jobs. Member states have a primary responsibility to address social issues, where what we need is more delivery and less rhetoric.”

Critics have said small businesses will struggle to meet the costs and that national governments should decide on such matters, not the EU.

Germany and the Czech Republic, the home state of Commissioner Spidla already issued statements undermining the proposals.

Media reports quoted German Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen as saying they (the proposals) would "increase financial risks for employers who hire young women." She added the conditions would have a "boomerang" effect and prove to be a handicap for young women looking for jobs.

CTK news agency in a report cited Petr Necas, Czech Labour Minister as saying, "I'm strongly convinced that it is an unrealistic attempt and it does not respect differing conditions in various member states.”

British MEP Bushill-Matthews said, “Small businesses will struggle to afford this extra cost,” warning, “Ultimately some of the smallest businesses may think twice about employing young women through fear of them going on maternity leave.”

“The EU cannot solve all the ills of society with more one-size-fits-all legislation as determined by big business and big Trade Unions,” the Conservative European lawmaker added.

Commissioner Spidla, however had the opinion, “(The proposals) should also help increase women’s participation in the labour market and help face up to the challenges of demographic ageing: indeed countries with more women in employment also have higher birth rates.”

In a separate report “Childcare services in the EU,” the Commission reported that only five Member States -- Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain, -- had reached 33 percent of coverage for kids aged under three, as providing the minimum number of certified daycare spaces for children. There were five more Member States - Portugal, United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, Slovenia - approaching this target, it added.

While seven Member States (Finland, Italy, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Latvia) had reached a coverage level of 16 to 26 percent, there were eight Member States (Greece, Hungary, Malta, Slovakia, Lithuania, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland) had less than 10 percent coverage.

The report concluded that with the ongoing “huge imbalance between men and women in the sharing of domestics and family responsibilities, leaving women - much more so than men - to opt for flexible working arrangements or even give up work altogether.”

At the end of the press conference, Katharina von Schnurbein, spokesperson for Commissioner Spidla announced that she was going on maternity leave from this Monday.

(Published in