Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is traveling to North Korea on a private trip. Unnamed sources told the Associated Press that Schmidt will visit North Korea as part of a delegation led by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; North Korean diplomats visited Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California in 2011. According to the Associated Press, the trip could take place “as early as this month.” No reason was announced for the North Korea visit, but Bill Richardson currently serves as an unofficial envoy to Pyongyang on behalf of American interests.
North Korea is largely walled off from the Internet, with access strictly controlled and heavily monitored by the government. Persistent poverty limits Internet usage. However, the North Korean government has been promoting an unexpected boom in mobile phones with subscription fees going back to the central government; more than 1 million handsets are currently in use compared with over 50 million in neighboring South Korea. While phones offered by state-owned provider Koryolink have crippled functionality, smuggled phones with cameras, memory cards, and other forbidden features are easily available. Chinese mobile phone networks are easily available along North Korean border regions. With that said, Pyongyang recently launched a crackdown on “knowledge smugglers” sneaking illicit phones, magazines, SD cards, USB drives, books, and pirated DVDs from China.
The United States and North Korea have extremely limited trade relations. Schmidt, for his part, is the coauthor of a new book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping The Future Of People, Nations, And Businesses, written with Google Ideas director Jared Cohen. The book grew out of a 2010 Foreign Affairs article by the pair, written before the Arab Spring, arguing that information technology and digital culture could unseat dictators. Publisher Knopf has already ordered 150,000 copies of the book and plans a large marketing campaign. Google is also waiting on news on an FTC antitrust decision this week.
Schmidt also has a reason to visit North Korea that has little to do with Google. Apart from serving as Google's executive chairman, Schmidt chairs the New America Foundation, a prominent thinktank which publishes extensively on technology through their Open Technology Initiative.
In October and November of 2012, discreet trade missions took place between North Korea and both the Netherlands and Sweden. Relations then took a sharp nosedive after North Korea launched a surprise long-range missile test in December.
[Image: Flickr user Charles Haynes]