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North Korea welcomes Google chairman in attempt to close country's digital divide

Donald KirkThe Christian Science Monitor

Google chairman Eric Schmidt plans to visit North Korea as early as next week in what analysts see as part of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s drive to give an appearance of closing the vast digital divide between his isolated country and the rest of the world.

Although Mr. Schmidt is not expected to reach any real deal with the North, his presence there seems to show a desire in North Korea to improve the technological capabilities of people almost totally shut off from the Internet. Schmidt, for his part, has often noted the power of the Internet – and Google – to lift people out of poverty and political oppression.

“In the last few years, Google has met with NGOs that do work with North Korea,” observes David Kang, director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California. “This is not a sudden or impulsive visit.”

Schmidt will be traveling with two figures who have been influential in recent years in developing contacts with North Korea. One of them, Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who served as UN ambassador during the presidency of Bill Clinton, has advocated rapprochement with the North during several visits to Pyongyang.

Key in arranging Schmidt’s visit is assumed to be Richardson’s longtime adviser on North Korea, Tony Namkung, who has visited North Korea more than 40 times during the past 25 years.

Mr. Namkung, born to Korean parents in China and educated in the US, was instrumental in Mr. Clinton’s visit to North Korea in August 2009. That resulted in the release of the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been held for 140 days after their arrest while filming along the North’s Tumen River border with China. He also advised the Associated Press on opening a bureau in Pyongyang.

Schmidt's mission raised the possibility that he might be the type of high-level visitor to whom North Korea might be willing to release another American now in prison in Pyongyang. Kenneth Bae, a human rights activist from Oregon, was charged with "hostile acts" after entering North Korea legally from China as leader of a tour group to the Rason economic zone in the northeast. A devout Christian, he was believed to have been carrying religious material -- strictly forbidden in the North.

There was no doubt, though, that the overall rationale for the visit would be political, diplomatic and economic -- with a view to relations with the US.

“I don't know for sure,” says Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, “but it certainly looks as if Google is the ‘dangle’ for the Richardson/Namkung mission to Pyongyang.” Mr. Eberstadt, who has written extensively on North Korea, adds, “What Schmidt/Google stand to achieve is another question altogether, of course.”

Just what’s in the visit for Schmidt is especially puzzling considering that no North Korean can use Google's search engine unless working for a high-level government agency with a need for vital facts and figures.

In addition, Tom Coyner, a longtime business consultant in Seoul, raises another concern: "What could be the long-term implications for Internet freedom of information as central governments become stronger in denying individual rights – including to free access to information."

Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush, observes that Google withdrew operations from China to Hong Kong in 2010 as a result of Chinese Internet censorship. The problem, he says, “would likely be exponentially worse in North Korea.”

Mr. Cha, in questions and answers posted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he serves as a senior adviser, said that “only about 4,000 North Koreans have access to the Web and under very tightly monitored conditions.”

Kim Jong-un, however, is believed to have played a key role in persuading his father, Kim Jong-il, to accept the inevitability of communication by mobile telephones several years ago. More than 1 million North Koreans now communicate on cellphones through a system set up by Orascom, the Egyptian telecommunications giant, that strictly blocks calls in and out of North Korea.

Thus David Straub, a former senior US diplomat in Seoul, believes that Schmidt may want to "look at what Orascom has done with cell phones in North Korea and thus that Google might be able to do something with the Internet there."

Kim Jong-un “clearly has a penchant for the modern accoutrements of life,” says Mr. Cha. “If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development.”

Any attempt to formalize a deal between Schmidt and a North Korean state company, however, would run afoul of UN sanctions on doing business with the North. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says “we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful,” especially in view of North Korea’s latest launch of a long-range rocket last month, in violation of sanctions.

Still, the State Department can do nothing to block the trip. “They are private citizens,” she says. “They are making their own decision."