Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of one of the world’s biggest Internet companies, is the highest-profile U.S. executive to visit North Korea — a country with notoriously restrictive online policies — since young leader Kim Jong Un took power a year ago. His visit has drawn criticism from the U.S. State Department because it comes only weeks after a controversial North Korean rocket launch; it has also prompted speculation about what the businessman hopes to accomplish.
Schmidt arrived on a commercial Air China flight with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has traveled more than a half-dozen times to North Korea over the past 20 years.
Richardson, speaking ahead of the flight from Beijing, called the trip a private, humanitarian mission.
“This is not a Google trip, but I’m sure he’s interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this,” Richardson said without elaborating on what he meant by the “social media aspect.”
“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,” he said.
U.S. officials have criticized the four-day trip. North Korea on Dec. 12 fired a satellite into space using a long-range rocket. Washington condemned the launch, which it considers a test of ballistic missile technology, as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from developing its nuclear and missile programs. The Security Council is deliberating whether to take further action.
“We continue to think the trip is ill-advised,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday, reiterating the U.S. position that the visit is badly timed. However she added that the government would be open to hearing from the delegation after they return from North Korea.
The trip was planned well before North Korea announced its plans to send a satellite into space, two people with knowledge of the delegation’s plans told The Associated Press. AP first reported the group’s plans last Thursday.
Schmidt, a staunch proponent of Internet connectivity and openness, is expected to make a donation during the visit, while Richardson will try to discuss the detainment of a U.S. citizen jailed in Pyongyang, members of the delegation told AP. They asked not to be named, saying the trip was a private visit.
“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 of the U.S. citizen. “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.”
The visit comes just days after Kim, who took power following the Dec. 17, 2011, death of his father, Kim Jong Il, laid out a series of policy goals for North Korea in a lengthy New Year’s speech. He cited expanding science and technology as a means to improving the country’s economy as a key goal for 2013.
North Korea’s economy has languished for decades, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which since the mid-1940s had provided the country with an economic safety net. North Korea, which has very little arable land, has relied on outside help to feed its people since a famine in the 1990s.
In recent years, North Korea has aimed to modernize its farms and digitize its factories. Farmers told the AP that management policies were revamped to encourage production by providing workers with incentives.
Computer and cellphone use is gaining ground in North Korea’s larger cities.
However, most North Koreans only have access to a domestic Intranet system, not the World Wide Web. For North Koreans, Internet use is still strictly regulated and allowed only with approval.
Schmidt, who oversaw Google’s expansion into a global Internet giant, speaks frequently about the importance of providing people around the world with Internet access and technology.
Google now has offices in more than 40 countries, including all three of North Korea’s neighbors: Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticized for systematic Internet censorship.
Accompanying Schmidt is Jared Cohen, a former U.S. State Department policy and planning adviser who heads Google’s New York-based think tank. The two collaborated on a book about the Internet’s role in shaping society called “The New Digital Age” that comes out in April.
Also leading the delegation is Kun “Tony” Namkung, a Korea expert who has made frequent trips to North Korea over the past 25 years and has worked as a consultant for The Associated Press.