Google Inc’s executive chairman is preparing to travel to one of the last frontiers of cyberspace: North Korea.
Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, according to two people familiar with the group’s plans who asked not to be named because the visit had not been made public.
The trip would be the first by a top executive from US-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet.
North Korea is in the midst of what leader Kim Jong-un called a modern-day “industrial revolution” in a New Year’s Day speech.
Kim is pushing science and technology as a path to economic development for the impoverished country, aiming for computers in every school and digitized machinery in every factory.
However, giving citizens open access to the Internet has not been part of the North’s strategy. While some North Koreans can access a domestic Intranet service, very few have clearance to freely surf the World Wide Web.
It is unlikely Google will push to launch a business venture in North Korea, said Victor Cha, a Korea expert who was a senior Asia specialist in the administration of former US president George W. Bush.
“Perhaps the most intriguing part of this trip is simply the idea of it,” said Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Kim “clearly has a penchant for the modern accoutrements of life. If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development,” Cha said.
It was not immediately clear who Schmidt and Richardson expect to meet in North Korea, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with the US. North Korea has almost no business with companies in the US, which has banned the import of North Korean-made goods.
North Korea is likely to be more interested in Google’s products such as e-mail, maps and other content, said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University in South Korea.
“North Korea has made a lot of investment in science and technology, not just for military purposes but also for industrial and practical reasons,” Lim said, predicting that Pyongyang may ask Google to let their experts learn from the US company about upgrading its software and content.
The trip comes at a delicate time politically. Last month, North Korea defiantly shot a satellite into space on the back of a three-stage rocket, a launch Pyongyang has hailed as a major step in its quest for peaceful exploration of space.
However, Washington and others decried it as a covert test of long-range ballistic missile technology designed to send a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California.
The visit also follows North Korea’s announcement that a US citizen of Korean descent has been jailed in Pyongyang on suspicion of committing “hostile” acts against the state.
Kenneth Bae, identified in North Korean state media by his Korean name, Pae Jun-ho, is the fifth US citizen detained in North Korea in the past four years. The Korean Central News Agency said he was taken into custody in Rason, a special economic zone in the far north while touring the area.
Richardson will try to meet with North Korean officials, and possibly Bae, to discuss the case, the sources said.
Richardson has been to North Korea at least a half-dozen times since 1994, including two trips to negotiate the release of US citizens detained by North Korea. His last visit to Pyongyang was in 2010.