Google exec to visit North Korea: why Obama administration isn't happy

Former US diplomat Bill Richardson is planning to take a Google executive to North Korea. The State Department has said the visit is unhelpful. The concern is about timing, it seems.

Foster Klug/AP/File
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (3rd l.) poses for a photo in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 10, 2007. Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea on a private trip led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month.

Describing his upcoming trip to North Korea as a “private humanitarian visit,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he will proceed with his plans – despite a State Department preference that he not.

Mr. Richardson plans to visit the troublesome pariah state with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the US considers this an inopportune moment for Richardson to make one of his signature North Korea forays.

“We don’t think the timing of this [trip] is particularly helpful,” Ms. Nuland told reporters, before adding that, on the other hand, “they are private citizens, and they are making their own decisions.”

Why not “helpful”? The US is always wary of any action that might be construed as rewarding the North for bad behavior. In that vein, a high profile trip right now by a prominent former US diplomat – Richardson also served as the US ambassador to the United Nations – might seem uncomfortably close to Pyongyang’s successful launch of a long-range missile last month.

Nuland said it was “correct” to assume that her comment that a trip now would not be “helpful” referred to the Dec. 12 missile launch. The North Korean government claimed at the time that the missile had launched a weather satellite, but South Korean scientists examining recovered fragments concluded the missile was designed to be capable of launching a nuclear warhead.

The US is working with Asian and European allies at the UN to try to stiffen existing international sanctions on North Korea to signal that destabilizing actions like the missile launch won’t go unpunished. From the US perspective, even a private diplomatic mission at this point softens that message.

In an interview Friday with CBS News, Richardson said he was aware of the State Department’s concerns, but he added that since he and Mr. Schmidt would be traveling as private citizens, “they shouldn’t be that nervous.” Richardson did not say exactly when he will travel, though it is expected to be sometime this month.

Explaining why he calls the trip a “humanitarian visit,” Richardson said his primary purpose will be to seek the release of detained Korean-American Kenneth Bae, whose arrest North Korean authorities announced last month.

Richardson said he has maintained contact with the North Koreans during the past 15 years, and he noted that he has “brought back” American “hostages” including members of the US military, and negotiated the return of the remains of US soldiers who perished in the Korean War.

As for the State Department view that this is not the time for a trip to North Korea, Richardson took the opposite perspective, saying recent worrisome actions made this the right moment for dialogue. Noting his concern “about the nuclear proliferation of the North Koreans,” Richardson said, “I thought it was important that there be an opportunity to talk to them at this very important juncture.”

He noted recent “mixed signals” from the North’s new young leader, Kim Jong-un, and acknowledged that he hoped his visit might “move the North Koreans in the right direction.”

Richardson did suggest some sensitivity to US concerns, however, noting that he already postponed the trip once in December “at the request of the State Department.” But he cited South Korea’s Dec. 19 presidential election as the reason for the postponement, and not the North’s missile launch.

Left unexplained was Richardson’s intentions to bring Google’s Mr. Schmidt on the trip with him. Insisting that “this is not a Google trip,” Richardson told CBS that he invited Schmidt as a “friend” and because he saw it as a way to give the visit a “broader perspective.”

Schmidt is a prominent advocate of universal access to information via the Internet, while North Korea maintains among the world’s tightest restrictions on web access. On the other hand, Mr. Kim is said to be fascinated by technology and interested in exploring means of expanding his hermit state’s connections with the outside world.

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