Despite many in Washington pleading for him to stay home, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt began a four day tour of North Korea today. Accompanied by former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, Schmidt is by far the highest profile executive to visit the notoriously secluded country since the passing of Kim Jong Il a year ago. Like the country itself, the details of the trip are being kept under wraps so not a lot is known about the itinerary. Some things are known however. Most notable is that Google claims the trip is a personal visit not affiliated with the company at all. It’s hard to imagine that when you’re the chairman of such a high profile company that you do anything without that company being involved in some way. It’s not like people vacation there after all. North Korea is infamous for limiting its citizen’s access to phone and internet services so perhaps Schmidt is looking to open some lines of communication in a country that has long been inaccessible.
Governor Richardson is no stranger to North Korea, as he has made several trips in the past. Many speculate that the delegation’s true motives revolve around a Korean-American U.S. citizen who was detained in North Korea for unspecified crimes. Governor Richardson has been involved with returning prisoners from North Korea in the past, but the details of the negotiations will probably not surface.
Schmidt and Google have long been outspoken in their beliefs that the internet should be a tool for all to have. Connectivity has always been one of Google’s primary goals, as evident by their massive fiber optic network undertaking currently in progress. Asia has often caused Google some trouble in the past, as China in particular is known for censoring Google results in the country.
It’s not really clear what North Korea would want with Google, but in a lengthy speech given on New Year’s Day, current leader Kim Jong Un cited improving science and technology as a primary goal for 2013. Working with the arguable King of the Internet would certainly help North Korea achieve that goal, but it has people asking about Google’s incentives in all of this.
There’s no denying that a larger base of phone and internet users would add some transparency to a country that’s been hiding from view for so long. Perhaps Google would provide some of the funding in getting North Korea online. Telecommunications is a huge industry so there would likely be a ton of companies looking to get involved. What we do know is this trip is high profile and a press conference is scheduled for after the party returns, so stay tuned.