In North Korea, Google Exec Sees an Internet Open for the Very Few

On Tuesday, Google exec Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson visited a computer lab in Pyongyang as part of a four-day trip to North Korea

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David Guttenfelder / AP

Google executive Eric Schmidt, left, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson tour a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang on Jan. 8, 2013

When looking for a photo op that says digital North Korea, there seems to be one option: the computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. On Tuesday, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt visited the lab with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson as part of a four-day trip to the isolated authoritarian state and were photographed watching a student surf the Internet. The search engine of choice? Google, reported the Associated Press correspondent based in the North Korean capital.

If the image looked familiar to North Korea watchers, it might be because Li Keqiang, the man set to be made China’s Premier later this year, was photographed in the same lab in October 2011, peering over a student’s shoulder as he used a computer. There is no indication from Chinese press reports at the time what search engine the student was using, though the discussion likely didn’t dwell on Google, with which the Chinese authorities have frequently sparred. After threatening to leave China in 2010, Google began to redirect mainland users’ searches through Hong Kong. Last month the company stopped a months-old service alerting users when they were searching for terms that were possibly blocked in China, saying it was further hindering their search experience.

(PHOTOS: A New Look at North Korea)

That Schmidt, who is in North Korea on a private visit along with Richardson and Jared Cohen, head of the Google Ideas think tank, has received a relatively friendly welcome in North Korea is not a sign the country is prepared to embrace a free flow of information. Foreign correspondents visiting the country have reported finding Internet speeds there far faster than in nearby China. But use of the Internet in North Korea is limited to “super-elites” who are “very few in number and very high up in the North Korean government,” according to a recent analysis by Scott Thomas Bruce, project manager for the Partnership for Nuclear Security at the CRDF Global, a nonprofit that promotes international scientific exchange. Those elites, like the students at the exclusive Kim Il Sung University, get open Internet access because they are closely watched and considered politically safe.

As much as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears bent on maintaining the iron grip on power that his father and grandfather held before him, there are signs that he wants to allow slightly greater access to information technology to help prop up his country’s dysfunctional economy. In his New Year’s address — an event that marked a revival of a rhetorical approach used by his grandfather — Kim spoke repeatedly, if opaquely, about the need for a “scientific and technological revolution.” Thus far, the North’s primary efforts at expanding information technology have been the development of a decade-old domestic intranet that allows users to access vetted information, and a cell-phone system that likewise limits users to calls within the national network. While the number of North Koreans with access to either system is quite small, it does represent something of an information revolution, writes Bruce:

The decision to expand the use of information technology in North Korea was based on a mix of economic and social factors. The economic imperatives for the DPRK involve productivity gains domestically and attracting investment internationally. Socially, North Korea has come to the conclusion that it can control, or at least mitigate, the social disruption caused by such a system. In short, the perceived financial benefits for North Korea expanding the use of this technology were too high for the state to ignore, so it worked to build a system that minimized the threat to the regime.

(MORE: Is Kim Jong Un Preparing to Become North Korea’s Economic Reformer?)

Richardson told the Associated Press that he has pushed the Pyongyang regime to free up the Internet. His more immediate priority appears to be trying to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean American who was arrested under mysterious circumstances while leading a tour group in North Korea last November. Bae is accused of “hostile acts against the republic,” the state-run KCNA news service reported.

Despite the humanitarian focus of Richardson’s trip, the U.S. State Department has criticized the visit, which comes just a month after a North Korean satellite launch that was widely seen as a test of its ballistic-missile capabilities. “We don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week, adding that it was a private visit and the delegation did not carry any messages from the U.S. government. Nuland said later that the U.S. was “obviously open to hearing” whatever Richardson and Schmidt had to report after their trip.

(MORE: North Korea Defies Warnings, Launches Long-Range Rocket)

And that may be the biggest outcome of this trip: both sides get the chance to informally check each other’s temperature. “In a way, it’s quite a brilliant intelligence move for the U.S.,” says Adam Cathcart, a lecturer in Asian history at Queen’s University Belfast. “The State Department said they don’t like it, but I think they’re quite pleased to get information on how warmly North Korea received this delegation. I think there’s more intelligence here than meets eye.” Likewise, North Korea gets a chance to consider the merits of opening itself to the Internet. Schmidt’s “arrival in North Korea certainly will stimulate debate inside that country among the top elite about information technology and how far Kim Jong Un will go in his embrace of a globalized future,” says Cathcart. And allowing a man from Google to visit North Korea is much safer for the regime than allowing everyone in North Korea to visit Google.

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