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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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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.

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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.

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