Google chairman Eric Schmidt to visit North Korea

  • @timwalker

It’s one of the few countries in the world that his website can’t reach, but Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt is planning his first trip to North Korea.

The visit, which is being billed as a private humanitarian exercise, could take place as soon as this month.

North Korea boasts the world’s strictest internet policies: just 4,000 members of the Pyongyang elite have access to the web, and visitors are ordered to leave their smartphones at the airport. But in a televised address on Monday, North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-Un declared the need for a technology-led “industrial revolution” to improve the country’s ailing economy.

In a sign that the reclusive nation might be inching towards openness, Mr Schmidt will travel to Pyongyang accompanied by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, an envoy who has dealt with the North Korean regime regularly over the past two decades. The US government is unhappy about the visit, however; State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today that its timing was not “particularly helpful.” The Kim regime recently arrested a US citizen, Pae Jun Ho, on unspecified charges.

It is not thought that Google has any immediate business interest in North Korea. Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, told the Associated Press it was more likely Mr Kim’s administration was keen to pick the Google boss’s brains about software, such as email and mapping applications. Last year, a group of North Korean officials visited the search giant’s headquarters in northern California.

Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a blog post today that Mr Kim – who was schooled in Switzerland – “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.”

Mr Schmidt is a vocal believer in the power of the internet to thwart political oppression, and has become increasingly involved in international affairs. In 2010 he hired Jared Cohen, a former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton at the US State Department, as the director of Google Ideas: a think-tank that seeks technological solutions to global issues.

Steven Levy, author of In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, told The Independent: “In the last couple of years, Eric has really become interested in international diplomacy… He has thought more and more about the international impact of technology. Google is a big player in that.”

Does North Korea have a little Kim?

Speculation has been reignited about whether there is a new baby in the ruling Kim dynasty in North Korea. Leader Kim Jong-un’s wife who appeared to be pregnant in mid-December, no longer had a baby bump by New Year’s Day.

Video footage broadcast on 17 December showed Ri Sol-ju, wearing a billowing black dress that covered what appeared to be a swollen belly.

Rumours swept Seoul and Pyongyang that she was pregnant.

But Ri was shown by state TV at a New Year’s Day concert wearing a tighter dress and looking noticeably slimmer. There has been no official word from Pyongyang.