Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to Visit North Korea

After its successful rocket launch last month, and Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address last week calling for an “industrial revolution,” the DPRK or North Korea may now be preparing for a visit from the top executive of Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider. The ostensible purpose of the trip is humanitarian, and it may take place as early as this month, according to The Associated Press story this afternoon. The visit has not been formally announced publicly yet.

Q1: Who is going on this trip?

A1: The principals on the trip will be Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor, and Dr. Tony Namkung, longtime adviser to Richardson.

Q2: Does Google hope to launch business in North Korea with this trip?

A2: Highly unlikely. Even though Google has offices in more than 40 countries now, including in North Korea’s surrounding neighbors—Russia, South Korea, and China—the prospects for a deal are remote if only because North Korea is probably the most tightly controlled country in terms of Internet usage. Only about 4,000 North Koreans have access to the web and under very tightly monitored conditions. Google’s problems in China (Google pulled out in 2010 given Chinese Internet censorship) would likely be exponentially worse in North Korea.

Q3: Then, how might this trip be significant?

A3: Perhaps the most intriguing part of this trip is simply the idea of it. The restricted control of information lies at the heart of the DPRK state, and yet it is about to host one of the West’s greatest facilitators of borderless information flows. The new young leader Kim Jong-un 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.

Q4: Can this trip help move the diplomatic ball forward with North Korea?

A4: Hard to say at this point. After the North Korean missile launch last month, the Obama administration has been focused on increasing the level of sanctioning against North Korea in the UN Security Council. These deliberations have been ongoing in New York since the test last month. There is not much of a mood for a return to diplomacy at this point in Washington. Nevertheless, Richardson has had a history of trying to jump-start dialogue at low points in the U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks. He is a well-known quantity to North Koreans and does have credibility with them.

Q5: Then, what could be accomplished through this trip?

A5: The Schmidt-Richardson delegation might broach discussions for release of a Korean-American currently detained in North Korea. The United States does not have diplomatic ties with North Korea, and Sweden has been handling the issue. This trip could provide more direct contact with the regime on the issue.

Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Ecco), was named one of 2012’s Best Books on Asia by Foreign Affairs.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair