The US on Thursday criticized a planned visit to North Korea by Google chief executive officer (CEO) Eric Schmidt, calling it ill-timed in the wake of Pyongyang’s widely condemned rocket launch last month.
Schmidt — whose company has an unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil” — is planning to visit the isolated nation with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a veteran troubleshooter on North Korea.
Richardson has been to North Korea a number of times in the past 20 years and has been involved in negotiating the release of US citizens detained in the country.
News of the visit, described as “private” by both Washington and Seoul, comes just weeks after Pyongyang confirmed the arrest of a US citizen of Korean descent and said he would be prosecuted for unspecified crimes.
Pyongyang has in the past agreed to hand over detainees to high-profile delegations led by the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, and some observers suggested it may have requested Schmidt’s participation in this case.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland clearly conveyed Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for the mission, and told reporters that both Schmidt and Richardson were “well aware” of that view.
“Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful ... in light of recent actions by [Pyongyang],” Nuland said, adding that she was referring to its long-range rocket launch last month.
Pyongyang defended the launch as a purely scientific mission aimed at placing a satellite in space, but the international community saw it as a disguised ballistic missile test that flagrantly violated UN resolutions.
Nuland said that Schmidt and Richardson would be travelling in an “unofficial capacity,” adding: “They are not carrying any messages from us.”
When asked if the pair had been told of Washington’s displeasure about the timing, the spokeswoman said: “They are well aware of our views.”
Google has so far refused officially to confirm the visit. Richardson’s staff said he would be out of the US until yesterday and unavailable for comment.
Richardson was last in Pyongyang in 2010 when he met North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator in an attempt to ease tensions after the North shelled a South Korean border island.
The US citizen arrested in November, identified as Pae Jun-ho, entered the country as a tourist according to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, which said he had admitted committing a crime against the state.
North Koreans are largely isolated from external news and information sources and very few citizens have access to a computer, let alone the Internet.
Google is present in China, where it has long struggled with government censors. In 2010 it effectively shut down its Chinese search engine, rerouting Chinese users to its uncensored site in Hong Kong.
Asked whether the US would be happy to see Google help North Korea build its Internet infrastructure, Nuland said that all US companies were subject to US economic sanctions currently in place against North Korea.