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Google's Schmidt takes a techie tour of North Korea

A nine-member delegation, which includes Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former Gov. Bill Richardson, take a four-day tour of the communist country to learn about North Korean technology and support open Internet access.

By Aimee Ortiz / January 9, 2013

Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, back row left, and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, back row right, look at North Korean soldiers working on computers at the Grand Peoples Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea.

David Guttenfelder/AP

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Google chairman Eric Schmidt has spent the last three days with a private delegation on a humanitarian trip to North Korea. The delegation, which includes former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, arrived in North Korea on Monday to stress more open Internet access and cellphones for the tightly restricted country.

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“The citizens of the DPRK [North Korea] will be better off with more cellphones and an active Internet,” Mr. Richardson said to the Associated Press. "Those are the ... messages we've given to a variety of foreign policy officials, scientists and government officials."

According to the AP, experts see North Korea as one of the least connected countries. North Korea has rigid control on the flow of information and the interactions of citizens with the outside world. Many argue that the strict rules and censorship have caused the small Asian country to suffer in its isolation.

Kim Jong Un, the young leader of the Communist nation, vowed to improve the economy in his New Year speech on January 1. Un has urged citizens to expand their knowledge of science and technology as means for economic improvement. The AP reported that new propaganda signs have been spotted across Pyongyang telling citizens to “push back the frontiers” and “break through the cutting edge.”

Most North Koreans currently have a domestic intranet system as opposed to the World Wide Web.

Mr. Schmidt, who oversaw Google’s growth into an Internet giant, visited Kim Il Sung University on Tuesday. He spoke with students that have global Internet access (with permission) for research purposes.

On Wednesday he visited the Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang’s main library, before going to see the Korea Computer Center. Several years ago, Mr. Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il, is quoted as saying: “Now is the era for science and technology. It is the era of computers."

The delegation entered an atrium exhibition hall at the computer center, according to the AP. There, the Google group got a chance to toy with North Korean computer products like the new Samjiyon tablet computer featuring foreign hardware and North Korean software. The group also got the opportunity to learn about North Korea’s data encryption software, face recognition devices, video chat and instant messaging software.

The Korea Computer Center partnered with Russia, China, India, and other nations to develop its products. Officials told Schmidt and Richardson that North Korea is hoping to reach out and establish partnerships with other countries.

Google currently has offices in over 40 countries; among those is China – another country that is criticized for its censorship. Schmidt, a staunch supporter of Internet connectivity and openness, is expected to make a donation during his visit.

However, the trip for the Google chairman and former governor has not been without criticism.

US officials initially criticized the four-day trip after North Korea launched a satellite into space using a long-range rocket on Dec. 12.

Washington considered the launch to be a ballistic missile technology test – a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. These resolutions prohibit Pyongyang from developing its nuclear and missile programs.

The Atlantic Wire released an article on Wednesday titled, “Just How Badly Is Eric Schmidt’s Trip to North Korea Going?” and speculated that the image released on Tuesday of North Korean students Googling for Schmidt may have just been a photo-op.

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, calls Schmidt and Richardson “gullible” in his New York Daily News piece. He opined that Schmidt and Richardson, “have joined the long list of Americans and others used by the Kim family dictatorship for political advantage."

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