Posted : 2013-01-03 17:30
Updated : 2013-01-03 17:30

Why is Google leader headed to N. Korea?

By Kim Young-jin

Eric Schmidt
A report that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will soon travel to North Korea on a private mission with an American politician is attracting keen interest in South Korea, raising questions on what the visit means for the information-starved state.

Schmidt will travel with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on "a private, humanitarian mission" as early as this month, AP reported Thursday. However, the exact timeline of the trip or its purpose was not immediately clear.

The report said Richardson, who in the past has played the role of a diplomatic troubleshooter, will seek to meet with North Korean officials as well as Kenneth Bae, an American who is being held on suspicions of committing "hostile acts" in the North.

However, the inclusion of Schmidt garnered most attention because Pyongyang is known as one of the world's harshest repressors of access to information.

A Google spokesperson remained mum, saying, "We do not comment on the personal travel of executives," while requesting anonymity.

The North, which recently angered the world with a long-range rocket launch, has in recent years sent delegations abroad to gain information on market principles and technology. While it remains to be seen what the regime will do with such information, the trips include one last year to Google's headquarters in California.

Pyongyang operates an internal intranet system but only a handful of people are thought to be allowed access to the World Wide Web. In some cases, however, it has tinkered with internet use.

Since 2011, graduates students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology have been allowed to access the Web including Google for research projects. The university is funded by outside Christian organizations.

The AP report noted that Schmidt has advocated Internet access for people around the world.

Victor Cha, a former White House staffer and now Korea Chair at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said it was unlikely for Google to launch business in the North, citing censorship in China that forced the firm to back out. But he added that the trip remains interesting.

"The new young leader Kim Jong-un clearly has a penchant for the modern accoutrements of life," he said on the CSIS website. "If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a New Year's address, sought to tie the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket to economic development, saying the nation should draw motivation from the feat. This was seen as emphasizing the technology sector's role in economic recovery.

Other observers noted that due to Schmidt's high profile, both sides were more than likely aware of the level of interest the trip would garner. Both the firm and Pyongyang could have some goals in mind, they speculated.

For the North, it would tie into Kim Jong-un's stated efforts to develop the economy with technology as a growth engine. Experts say some 10,000 professionals work in the field of information technology and that many more have been trained.

Meanwhile, Richardson has visited the North several times including in a bid to ease tensions following Pyongyang's deadly artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Kenneth Bae apparently entered the country in early November while leading a tourist trip. His alleged offense is not yet clear.

Any effort by the North to open up to the internet face steep challenges, analysts say, because they believe information flow could destabilize the regime.

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