What does Google want with North Korea? (+video)
Google chairman Eric Schmidt, known for his advocacy of Internet freedom, could travel as early as next week to North Korea – a country almost entirely sealed off from online communications.
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In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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“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."
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