Google chief makes 'mystery' visit to North Korea

Google chairman Eric Schmidt

Effectively cut out of its largest potential market, China, Google may now be sussing out what has been called the internet’s last frontier, North Korea.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt is reported to be planning a visit as part of a humanitarian mission led by US politician Bill Richardson, who has had ties with the communist regime over the past 20 years.

Google has yet to confirm the visit but it has been reported officially by the South Korean government.

While the focus of the mission may be Mr Richardson’s interests in freeing foreign political prisoners and improving relations between the two Koreas, Mr Schmidt’s involvement has raised more intriguing issues.

Ordinary citizens in North Korea have no access to free media or the internet, although new  leader Kim Jong-un, who is not yet 30, has called for a push in technology and science.

North Korea is better known for policies that  have led to widespread starvation and persecution of its population, considered the least free in the world by Freedom House.

His New Year speech was widely reported because it was the first to be shown on state TV for 19 years, when Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung ruled the so-called “hermit kingdom.”

"I think this is part of Google's broader vision to bring the Internet to the world, and North Korea is the last frontier," the Asia Foundation’s Peter Beck said in Soeul.

In his new year broadcast, Kim Jong-un, who assumed power after the death of his father in 2011, spoke of the need to improve the economy.

He said 2013 would be a year of creations and changes, calling for a "radical turnabout" that would transform the impoverished, isolated state into an "economic giant" and raise living standards.

But this doesn’t mean any change in the regime’s strong military stance and aggressive attitude to the West.

Under Kim's leadership, North Korea has conducted two long-range rocket launches, which have been condemned by most countries, including New Zealand but particularly the US, South Korea and Japan.

The December launch put a satellite into orbit. The US, Japan and South Korea are seeking a UN Security Council ban on missile tests after nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

North Korea expert Victor Cha, author of The Impossible State, says the true purpose  of Mr Schmidt’s visit remains a mystery, it is unlikely to be commercial.

"Even though Google has offices in more than 40 countries now, including in North Korea's surrounding neighbours – Russia, South Korea and China – the prospects for a deal are remote if only because North Korea is probably the most tightly controlled country in terms of internet usage," Mr Cha says.

"Only about 4000 North Koreans have access to the web and under very tightly monitored conditions. Google's problems in China would likely be exponentially worse in North Korea."

Mr Cha and other analysts have wondered aloud if the visit might be linked to the North's detention last month of US citizen Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator held for unspecified "crimes."

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