Eric Schmidt probably didn’t expect to see anyone using Google on his four-day trip to North Korea this week. After all, isn’t this supposed to be one of the most closed countries on the planet, a place where the authorities control the flow of information so tightly its citizens know little of the outside world?
But on a visit to the nation’s top university on Tuesday, the Google chairman was apparently introduced to a student using the search engine to look for the Cornell University website.
According to the Associated Press, Schmidt spent time talking with students using HP desktop computers at an ‘e-library’ at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University.
The Google executive is in the country in a private capacity, accompanying former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who is apparently hoping to talk with the authorities about US citizen Kenneth Bae, who has been detained in the country since last month.
Richardson is a familiar figure for many of those in the North Korean regime, having made many visits to the country over the years. On this visit he said his delegation would probably meet with political, economic and military leaders.
Jared Cohen, director of the Google Ideas think tank, is also on the trip. This from AP: “Cohen asked a student how he searches for information online. The student clicked on Google – “That’s where I work!” Cohen said – and then asked to be able to type in his own search: “New York City.” Cohen clicked on a Wikipedia page for the city, pointing at a photo and telling the student, “That’s where I live.” The look on the student’s face wasn’t reported.
These students are among the privileged few, with the vast majority of the population having no access to the World Wide Web, or even ownership of a computer for that matter.
University librarian Kim Su Hyang told AP students there have been able to use the Internet since April 2010, when the e-library opened, though they’re only allowed to view educational materials.
In Pyongyang’s main library, computers are linked not to the World Wide Web but instead to what you might call the North Korean Wide Web, an Intranet service which provides access to material carefully chosen by North Korean officials. You won’t find Google on here.
Many have been puzzled by Schmidt’s presence as part of Richardson’s delegation. It’s known that the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, has spoken of his intention to develop the country’s science and technology capabilities, but to suggest he’d like to see the country increase the flow of information with increased Internet access seems far-fetched.
“If Pyongyang loses its control over information, the regime is doomed,” former state department spokesman PJ Crowley said recently. “The moment the average North Korean understands the gap between their lives and South Koreans’, the game is over.”
Perhaps Schmidt will reveal a little more at a press conference to be held later this week upon the delegation’s arrival at Beijing airport.