Despite lingering furor over North Korea’s recent rocket launch, a high-profile U.S. delegation’s visit is seen to give a boost to its leader Kim Jong-un’s budding peace offensive.
Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson landed in Pyongyang late Monday for a four-day stay, dismissing Washington’s discontent about the timing.
On Tuesday, they visited the elite Kim Il-sung University in the capital to see how students there search for information using Google and Wikipedia, a rare sight in the tightly controlled society.
They also met with officials from the North’s Foreign Ministry, apparently to negotiate the release of a detained U.S. citizen named Kenneth Bae. Kun "Tony" Namkung, a Korea expert accompanying the pair, said it was a "good, productive but frank meeting," without elaborating.
Six other guests include Schmidt’s daughter, Sophie, and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, the California-based search giant’s think tank.
Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt (center), former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (second from right) and other visitors watch a North Korean student surfing the Internet at a computer lab during a tour to
Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
Seoul officials are closely watching the trip, which comes a week after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for economic revival and inter-Korean reconciliation through his New Year message.
"The North may be eyeing two things," a senior official with the Unification Ministry told reporters on customary condition of anonymity.
He took notice of the state-run KCNA’s identification of the group as a "U.S. Google delegation headed by former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson."
"Now that the new leadership is emphasizing knowledge-driven economic muscle and high-tech industries, there’s possibility that it will try utilizing the visitors in such areas," he said.
"But what the regime ultimately wants is to improve relations with the U.S. and ease the situation given imminent sanctions."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said that the Seoul government "hopes that their trip will proceed in a way that helps to promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Schmidt’s participation has gained particular traction, spawning speculation over his potential business interest in the hermit nation.
Some news reports suggested that he may make a donation there and tour Pyongyang University of Science and Technology along with James Chin-kyung Kim, its Korean-American president. The North’s sole private university was founded in 2010 jointly by its Education Ministry and the South’s Northeast Asia Foundation for Education Culture.
Along with Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology, PUST is known to offer its specially selected students limited yet exceptional access to the Web and foreign media including CNN.
"This is not a Google trip, but I’m sure he (Schmidt) is interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this," Richardson said in Beijing before leaving for Pyongyang. Schmidt declined to speak with journalists.
"We’ll meet with North Korean political leaders. We’ll meet with North Korean economic leaders, military. We’ll visit some universities. We don’t control the visit. They will let us know what the schedule is when we get there," Richardson said.
The famed entrepreneur Schmidt has championed global Internet freedom and its role in lifting people out of poverty and oppression.
Google Ideas’ website describes itself as "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." Its focus areas are counter-radicalization, illicit networks and fragile states.
"A focus on North Korea actually makes a lot of sense; the country is the n’est plus ultra of information suppression," Stephen Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California, San Diego, wrote to the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
"The negatives seem largely symbolic: Richardson and Google make the trip, which will be portrayed internally as a kind of modern-day kow-tow. But against that, the hapless Bae might get a reprieve. Richardson can bring back some real-time information."
Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said any business deal between Google and North Korea is unlikely in light of the company’s 2010 shutdown of its search engine in China due to rampant censorship.
"Perhaps the most intriguing part of this trip is simply the idea of it. The restricted control of information lies at the heart of the DPRK state, and yet it is about to host one of the West’s greatest facilitators of borderless information flows," he wrote last week.
"The new young leader Kim Jong-un clearly has a penchant for the modern accoutrements of life. If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development."
The much-trumpeted visit was delayed once in December at the behest of the U.S. Department of State, which took issue about the "bad" timing.
Washington and its allies have been pushing for new sanctions over the North’s Dec. 12 rocket liftoff, which contravened U.N. Security Council resolutions. But their efforts hit a snag due to resistance from China, Pyongyang’s staunch ally and patron.
"We continue to think the trip is ill advised," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a Monday briefing.
But she added that the government is "always open to hearing from Americans who have been in North Korea" upon their return.
While recognizing Washington’s concerns, Richardson labeled his visit a "humanitarian mission" that could produce positive results.
"We will make an assessment and see what comes of our visit. I think it will be positive," he told CNN last week.
A veteran negotiator on North Korea, Richardson has been there at least six times over the last 20 years, helping twice with the release of American detainees.
His last trip was in 2010 when he met with its chief nuclear negotiator in the wake of Pyongyang’s shelling of a South Korean border island in the West Sea.
In the past, the regime has handed over its captives to high-profile visitors from the U.S. It let go two journalists in 2009 when former President Bill Clinton came and met with late autocrat Kim Jong-il.
Richardson expressed doubt about a possible meeting with new ruler Kim Jong-un, but expected talks with senior North Korean officials also from the foreign and economic ministries and the military.
Kenneth Bae, or Pae Jun-ho, is a Korean-American who entered the country in early November as a tour operator. But he was arrested later that month near the Rason economic zone on charges of committing a "crime against the state."
During a five-day tour, one of his group members was reportedly found to be carrying a computer hard disk apparently containing "sensitive information" about the reclusive country.
The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang is providing consular services for Bae because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the North.
"We’re going to try to inquire the status, see if we can see him, possibly lay the groundwork for him coming home," Richardson said.
"I heard from his son who lives in Washington state, who asked me to bring him back. I doubt we can do it on this trip."
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org