Why is Google’s Eric Schmidt heading to North Korea?

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 ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. Twitter: @APQW

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