It’s an odd match, to be sure: a country with some of the most restrictive internet laws in the world (not to mention its other laws), and a company that still claims "Don’t be evil" as its motto, and has been burned by authoritarian governments before. But the AP is reporting that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea soon — possibly as early as this month — accompanied by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The news comes a day after a rare New Year’s Day speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that called for a "revolution" in science and technology in the poverty-stricken Hermit Kingdom. But it also comes just a few weeks after the country received international condemnation for a sneakily-timed rocket launch.
Google didn’t officially confirm the story to AP and Schmidt has yet to make a public statement on why he’s visiting the isolated country, which does hardly any business at all with U.S. companies. Also, it’s not yet clear who exactly Schmidt and Richardson will be meeting with once they arrive. However, Schmidt has been working with former State Department Adviser Jared Cohen on a book called "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," and has long been an advocate of the power of internet access to improve quality of life and openness.
Still, North Korea controls its internet with a far heavier hand than China, which Google has tangled with in the past. Those who have computer access mostly log on to a system known as the Kwangmyong, essentially a country-wide intranet run by a lone, state-run ISP provider (the BBC story linked to above includes the amazing detail that any time Kim Jong Un is mentioned on this intranet, his name is displayed slightly larger than the text around it). Just a few dozen families have unfiltered access to the real thing.
Can the power of "connectivity for the individual" be harnessed in a country where the government still cracks down on cell phones that can dial the outside world? Here’s hoping Schmidt speaks up soon so we can hear what exactly he has in mind.
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| Interview |
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.| Passport |