What if Google’s Eric Schmidt really meets Kim jong-un?

4th January 2013

Could the world-wide web bring North Korea back into the international community of nations?

Perhaps we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, but Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt is to travel to North Korea in a private capacity along with the former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson.

The trip has already attracted the disapproval of the US State Department as Voice of America reports, but it may be a bid to secure the release of a detained US citizen certainly on the part of the former politician.

The US government argues that the time is not right given the fact that North Korea launched a satellite into space in mid December fuelling fears that Korea may eventually be able to attack distant countries including America.

However, the private visit of Schmidt is intriguing. It is difficult to see how the boss of the world’s biggest search engine firm, with all that involves, hasn’t thought long and hard about what he is doing.

Then again maybe he is curious to see what the world looks like without the internet – though North Korea does have something that functions a bit like a very limited national intranet called the Kwangmyong though it also has some limited broadband capacity. 

If North Koreans could easily access the internet of course, they would see that it is alive with speculation that Schmidt might meet North Korean leader Kim jong-un. The supreme leader may have had some good news recently as it looks as if his wife or consort may have given birth as the Guardian reports.

They could have other things to talk about. Kim jong-un, who was educated in Switzerland – where they do have the internet – wants his nation to embrace technological progress. Eric Schmidt wants Google to make bigger inroads into Asia following its difficult time in China.

Google’s rocky relationship with the Chinese government is well documented. A row about censorship dominated relations for the first half of last year with Google threatening to quit.

A compromise of sorts has been arrived at. Google has a licence for China as CNN reported in the summer, though its Chinese search engine carries the domain of the semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong at www. google.com.hk and not cn and for now its Chinese small market share looks unlikely to increase significantly.

The business opportunities in North Korea may be limited. But it is very obvious that for such a closed off country dominated by a quasi-religious, militaristic and Stalinist dictatorship to introduce anything like an open internet would have huge implications for its society. In fact, a Chinese-style semi-controlled internet would still bring huge cultural change, though it would also probably see its malnourished people demanding adequate food supplies too.  

The internet doesn’t bring about democracy in itself, but it probably helps. As for Google’s business prospects – a more significant story is carried by Ft.com today with the US government ending a sweeping anti-trust investigation into the firm.

This should allow Google much more commercial freedom stateside though it has agreed to limit the way it enforces patents with other companies and change some of its procedures for smaller advertisers looking to switch to other search engines. A judgment from a parallel investigation by the EU is expected to conclude this month.

As for North Korea – a meeting
would very signficant. And we shouldn't forget that the return of a US citizen would be hugely signficant for their family as well.


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