Adam Taylor | Business Insider
Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea came as a surprise to many yesterday.
It seems likely that the news would have remained secret without the AP’s North Korea correspondent Jean H. Lee’s scoop.
Surprise isn’t the only reaction we’re seeing though.
According to the BBC, U.S. State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has commented negatively on the trip: “We don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful.”
The State Department’s attitude is understandable, given North Korea’s recent missile launch.
Despite this, Schmidt’s trip can’t be written off so easily.
For one thing, it is extremely unlikely that Schmidt is in town to launch Google.kp, no matter how exciting that sounds.
Subsequent reporting from Lee has revealed that the trip will be a “private, humanitarian mission” and that Schmidt would be traveling with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Korea expert Kun “Tony” Namkung.
Schmidt is well known as an advocate for Internet connectivity — something sorely lacking in the hermit kingdom. Few people in the country can access the open Internet; most are instead restricted to an extremely limited intranet — one that automatically shows Kim Jong-un and his family’s name in larger text than surrounding words.
As with everything in North Korea, any predictions about Kim reforming the Internet are largely based on speculation. Signs of shorter skirts and gelled hair on the streets of Pyongyang have generally been taken as a positive sign of a new liberal attitude, and his New Year’s speechcontained some encouraging passages. While Lee doubts that Kim will budge much on Internet access, he clearly wants to improve the country’s competitiveness when it comes to technology.
Technology has become accessible for more and more citizens in North Korea in recent years, and it does seem to be making a difference. Mobile phone subscriptions within the countryjumped from 1,600 in 2008 to 300,000 in 2010, eventually reaching 1 million last year, and illegalChinese mobile phones have been making their way across the border, enabling limited contact with the outside world. Pirated DVDs of South Korean soap operas are also said to be making the rounds, showing citizens that life in the South isn’t as hellish as the state tells them.
The hope for North Koreans is that Schmidt can help push Kim in the direction of using technology in a way that is positive for his people.
As one South Korean Foreign Ministry official said in 2011 when North Korean experts reportedly visited Google in Mountain View, California, “Though it’s unlikely that North Korea will open up to the outside world immediately, [showing North Koreans the level of U.S. technology and influence] could help shift the mindset of the regime over the long term.”