What was 'Mr. Google' doing in North Korea?

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, returned from a four-day visit to North Korea on Thursday with a message for the North: Embrace the Internet. 

David Guttenfelder/AP
Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt stands near a statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung during a tour of the Grand Peoples Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt wrapped up four days in North Korea today after glimpsing the state of technology in one of the world’s most closed societies, leaving observers wondering what he had accomplished.

For all the hype surrounding the trip, the head of the world's largest Internet search engine appears to have accomplished little other than to confirm that North Korea was not only far behind the rest of the world but perhaps in no mood to catch up. The best that observers are saying is the visit may have slightly pushed back the barriers to reopening dialogue with the North's main enemies, the United States and South Korea.

Even that much success, however, seems quite uncertain.

“I don’t think there’s any opening,” says Bernhard Seliger, a German agricultural economist here who’s visited North Korea more than 100 times, most recently in October. “I am not so optimistic. Real changes have yet to come.”

Mr. Schmidt hinted at his disappointment of North Korea’s failure to get connected to the world, telling reporters in Beijing that North Korea’s "decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth, and so forth.”

He said that he and the others in his group, including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, told the North Koreans that the longer they waited to open up the Internet to all but a small sliver of the elite, the tougher it would be.

“It will make it harder for them to catch up economically,” said Schmidt. “We made that alternative very, very clear."

Another disappointment of the trip was the failure to return to Beijing with Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American from Oregon who was arrested while leading a tour group across the Chinese border. Mr. Bae and his group entered the North legally, but Bae was arrested for “anti-state activities” believed to have concerned a desire to spread Christian material in a country where all religions are banned.

Mr. Richardson said before going to Pyongyang that the visit had an “humanitarian” goal, presumably to win freedom for Bae. He said today that he had not met with Bae, but he was told he was in good health and would soon go on trial.

Even so, Richardson insisted the trip had been “productive” and “successful.”

Analysts here, with long experience studying North Korean issues, have their doubts.

'What does Mr. Google think he's doing?'

“For me, North Korea is simply theater,” says James Rooney, an investor. “It’s the world’s longest-running drama.” As for the visit by Schmidt, Richardson, and seven others, including Richardson’s longtime North Korean adviser, Tony Namkung, Mr. Rooney doubts they managed to “accomplish anything.”

But might Schmidt have laid the groundwork for a deal under which Google could aid the North Koreans on expanding their intranet, which provides access only to authorized North Korean state sites?

“I don’t think any foreigner is going to make money in North Korea,” Rooney says. “If they were to do so, it would completely destabilize the regime.” Referring to Schmidt as “Mr. Google,” he asks, “what does Mr. Google think he’s doing there? He is dreaming.”

Schmidt, however, appears to have been under few illusions after visiting a computer library where young people accessed such rudimentary sites as New York City and Cornell University. Nor did he show signs of having been impressed by what he saw in a frigid computer center where North Korea produces tablet computers.

If the regime fails “to do something” about making the Internet widely available, he said, “they will remain behind.”

Ha Tae-keung, a member of the national assembly from South Korea's ruling conservative party, sees no chance of North Korea following Schmidt’s advice.

“I question whether they can really open the Internet,” he says. “If they open the Internet, it means they totally reform the country.”

Despite disappointments, however, some analysts believe the visit may have an effect on North Korean relations with South Korea and the US.

“Basically everyone is playing their own part,” says Paik Hak-soon, a longtime analyst of North Korean problems at the Sejong Institute, a think tank here. “North Korea is ready, in my opinion, for whatever maximum progress they can make with South Korea and the US.”

Change and sticking points

Mr. Paik believes North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, entering his second year in power since the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, is looking for a change in South Korea’s hard-line outlook as incoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye takes office next month. He also predicts shifts as President Obama opens his second four-year term with new secretaries of State and Defense.

One great sticking point is debate in the United Nations Security Council on strengthening sanctions against North Korea for launching a long-range missile last month that put a satellite into orbit. The US and South Korea say the real purpose of the exercise was to test the missile’s ability to hit a distant target with a nuclear warhead.

“It is not easy to produce a UNSC statement,” says Paik, “because China objects.”

The timing of the visit by Schmidt and Richardson in the midst of the Security Council debate might explain why the US State Department called it “unhelpful.”

Richardson, however, said he and others asked the North Koreans to honor the Leap Year “moratorium” reached with the US last February in Beijing in which North Korea pledged to suspend nuclear and missile tests.

Analysts fear the plea fell on deaf ears.

“There are some worries,” says Kim Tae-woo, a longtime military analyst. “They may be preparing another nuclear test.” Former president of the Korean Institute of National Unification, Mr. Kim notes that North Korea has twice previously conducted underground nuclear tests – in October 2006 and May 2009 – soon after testing long-range missiles.

Choi Jin-wook, analyst at KINU, sees “nothing very special” about the visit but criticizes the timing. “We are trying to make a breakthrough,” he says. “It’s not a good time.”

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