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Schmidt and Richardson Have Arrived in North Korea and Are Touring Computer Facilities

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, January 9 2013

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt Tours a Computer Lab at Kim Il Sung University (screengrab from AP video)

Google’s Eric Schmidt arrived in North Korea earlier this week on a humanitarian visit led by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. On Tuesday, the group — which also includes Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, formerly of the State Department — was taken on a whirlwind tour of computer facilities in the capital of Pyongyang. The visit has given media outlets an unprecedented look into the digital infrastructure of an isolated nation; the AP even has a video of Schmidt watching students at Kim Il-Sung University as they use Wikipedia and — that’s right — Google.

Students idly surfing the web might seem like an unremarkable sight, but only a tiny fraction of North Korea’s population of 24 million has Internet access; even then, most users are limited to content that is posted to a state-controlled Intranet portal. Schmidt and Richardson also paid a visit to the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang, where less elite citizens used the Intranet in much draftier conditions, judging by the outerwear everyone has donned in photos. On Wednesday, another stop on the tour was the Korea Computer Center, where Schmidt reportedly tried on a pair of 3D glasses and examined Red Star, the country’s homebrew operating system.

While Schmidt has made no comments to the press, Governor Richardson told the AP that opening a conversation about digital freedoms has been one component of the visit’s goal:

"The citizens of the DPRK will be better off with more cellphones and an active Internet. Those are the ... messages we've given to a variety of foreign policy officials.”

A primary motivating factor behind the trip appears to be negotiating for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who was detained in North Korea in December. As the US has no diplomatic representation in the authoritarian state, the visit remains on thin ice with the State Department. Richardson has maintained that, as a group of private citizens, they are only representing their humanitarian interests in he country.

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