January 8, 2013

Google mysteriously visits North Korea


North Korea remains tightly held by its leaders, but nevertheless, the entry of new technology is having an impact behind closed borders.

Emily Parker on Slate‘s Future Tense blog, reports that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, along with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, arrived Monday in North Korea. It’s not clear exactly what his invitation indicates about the nature of North Korean attitudes to technology, or why Schmidt is visiting. The State Department even advised against it, and the trip has been called “vanity” by some critics.

Bruce Einhorn in Bloomberg Businessweek writes,

“Odder still, Schmidt is accompanied by Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, a research center that Google calls “a think/do tank that convenes unorthodox stakeholders, commissions research, and seeds initiatives to explore the role that technology can play in tackling some of the toughest human challenges.” Cohen, a former State Department official under Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, doesn’t seem like the sort of guy whom the North Koreans would welcome enthusiastically. According to the San Jose Mercury News, last summer Cohen spotlighted “nearly a dozen North Korean defectors” at a conference in Los Angeles where they “gave harrowing accounts of privation and coerced criminal activity including drug sales.””

Despite the mystery surrounding this trip, it offers a tantalizing glimpse into the nature of life and technology under the regime. To those North Koreans who do have access to a computer and some form of internet, it must be a strange beast. According to Parker,

Martyn Williams, who runs Northkoreatech.org, estimates that the number of North Koreas with Internet access is probably in the “low thousands.” Such access tends to be limited to people in elite or scientific circles. Others might be able to get on the domestic “Intranet,” which consists of government-approved content. And of course North Korea’s Web culture has the expected quirks. North Korean websites are apparently programmed so that whenever it is mentioned, Kim Jung-un’s name is automatically displayed to be ever-so-slightly larger than the text around it.”

Doing business with North Korea is of course off limits for Google due to US sanctions, and so one wonders what will be achieved this week. Parker suggests that the symbolism itself is powerful, and is an indication that technology and the internet is far too attractive to be refused by North Korea for long.

At the very least, the Chicago Tribune reports that the states news agency set up their first gmail address in an anticipation of the visit, “[email protected]“.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.