Google Diplomacy: Eric Schmidt's Controversial Trip to North Korea

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. It was a mission impossible, or at least a mission very unlikely. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, went to North Korea with two main objectives: to ask North Korea to loosen its grip on Internet access, and to secure the release of an American citizen being held by North Korea for unspecified crimes. The release didn't happen but Richardson and Schmidt did get to tour two computer centers in Pyongyang, and Schmidt says he did urge North Korean leaders to let their citizens connect to the outside world or risk being left behind. Victor Cha is Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Victor Cha, regardless of outcome, what does it mean when the head of Google goes to North Korea?

Victor Cha: A visit like this, for the North Koreans, was as much about themselves as it was about the world, in the sense that they wanted to validate for themselves that they could talk at a level of somebody like an Eric Schmidt. Now, who knows whether, when he viewed these facilities, what he thought of them, what the level of it was. But as with many things in North Korea, you know, they do, a lot of it is for internal validation, and in that sense, they probably wanted to see how they measured up in the eyes of someone like the CEO of Google.

Werman: And when you say internal validation, is that kind of just meaning it's a visit for show?

Cha: Certainly it's show, yeah, but I think, in terms of their own technicians, they want to be able to see what someone from the outside thinks of their work and allows them to determine if they are, sort of, up to snuff.

Werman: So when Schmidt says he urged North Korean leaders to connect to the outside world, let their citizens connect or risk being left behind, do you think they listened to him seriously?

Cha: That's the sort of message you want to deliver to the very top leadership in the country, and to tell that to the working level officials he toured with, certainly it's good that people say this to them, but, you know, in the end how much of a difference it will make in terms of the politics of the country is very hard to say.

Werman: Now we know Schmidt didn't go through the usual diplomatic channels for this trip. Does this strike you, this trip, as kind of a rogue effort, and is there a place for rogue efforts in dealing with North Korea?

Cha: I wouldn't call it a rogue effort. I mean, I think there have been private missions in the past that have gone to the country, not one that has gained as much media attention as this. The US government wanted to disassociate themselves from the trip, which makes sense because any US government doesn't want to be seen as handing over its foreign policy to freelancers. So in that sense I think it's fine. But in the broader scheme of things, the idea of this trip is trying to begin to pierce the information bubble in North Korea. You know, in that sense I don't think any harm was done certainly, and if it leads to more trips like this that could, again, try to undermine the iron grip that the regime has on information in the country, that can only be a positive thing.

Werman: If we look at Eric Schmidt as a pure businessman, what's the incentive for a trip like this? I mean, there's no money to be made in North Korea as far as anybody can see.

Cha: That's a good question. You know, I think North Korea is probably one of the last frontiers in terms of not being connected to the Internet, and maybe that was one of the reasons he was attracted to the trip. For someone like him who's probably traveled the world, this is someplace he's not been. There could have been just basic curiosity that led him to do this. I would agree with you, I don't think Google would be looking at North Korea as a new market to enter, especially if the regime behaves as the way it does, given all the problems that Google had in China. And in North Korea, the problems would be exponentially worse.

Werman: Victor Cha, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also the author of The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future. Thanks very much indeed.

Cha: It's my pleasure.