Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, has landed in North Korea. His trip there is a bit of a mystery.
Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, has been a vocal proponent of providing people around the world with Internet access and technology. North Korea doesn’t even let its citizens access the open Internet and its population is overwhelmingly poor so it’s not exactly a coveted audience for advertisers.
And Google has rubbed the authoritarian regime of China the wrong way by challenging its so-called “Great Firewall.” In 2010, Google pulled its servers out of mainland China and the company has refused to self-censor its search results there.
But there is speculation that Schmidt’s presence in North Korea could have an upside for Google by positioning him as the company’s global ambassador. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told Wired that Schmidt “seems to be doing an exceptional job at government relations.”
Pfeffer noted that Google avoided recent antitrust problems in the U.S. and may be setting himself up as an international man of mystery who can help the company as it faces antitrust regulators in Europe.
North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, also recently gave a speech laying out a series of policy goals for his country that included expanding science and technology as a way to improve the North Korean economy in 2013.
Victor Cha, a director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, told Wired that Schmidt’s visit was a “good opportunity for the North Korean leadership to signal to the world that they’re serious about going forward.”
Cha said that Kim, who was educated in the West, may also be seduced by all the cool new technology. “He’s got to be interested in this stuff,” Cha said. But, Cha added, “as soon as he allows open access to it, he can kiss his leadership goodbye.”
Schmidt is part of a delegation being led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has made more than a half dozen trips to North Korea over the last 20 years. Richardson called the trip a private humanitarian mission.
Speaking about Schmidt’s presence, Richardson said, “this is not a Google trip. But, I’m sure he’s interested in some of economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this.”
Schmidt also brought along his daughter and Jared Cohen, a former U.S. State Department policy and planning adviser who now heads Google’s New York-based think tank.
U.S. officials are critical of the four-day trip, which comes less than a month after North Korea launched a satellite into space using a long-range rocket, which Washington considers a test of ballistic missile technology. Officials say the launch is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring North Korea from developing its nuclear missile program.
A State Department spokesperson said officials “don’t think the timing of the visit is helpful.”