Google exec returns from North Korea without American detainee


Google Executive Chairman Eric Schimidt (C) makes his way after checking in at Beijing International airport in Beijing on January 7, 2013, before his trip to North Korea.


Wang Zhou

SEOUL, South Korea — Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson have returned from Pyongyang after a four-day visit without Kenneth Bae, a Korean American who is currently detained there.

Speaking with reporters at the Beijing airport, Richardson and Schmidt said that they had not been able to meet Bae, though they had been assured that Bae, who's been detained since November, is in good health.

"We pushed to make sure that there were strong protections for Kenneth Bae both in the judicial process and personally,” Richardson told NBC News. “Another encouraging development was that they told me the judicial precedence would happen soon," he said. 

GlobalPost's senior correspondent in East Asia, Geoffrey Cain, called the ending to Schmidt and Richardson's trip "surprising and depressing."

"Every few years, some American ends up in North Korean hands, and visits by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have led to officials releasing their de facto hostages," Cain said. "This time around, the delegation wasn't even allowed to meet Kenneth Bae."

Cain continued:

They claimed it's because he's being held in a faraway province. The explanation doesn't make sense. What does the regime really want from Bae and Google, considering they didn't let him go?

It's possible that the Kim regime is sending a message that it needs something more before Bae can be released, some concession from the outside world.

Either way, Pyongyang watchers have been taken aback at the trip's unfruitful outcome, according to Cain, who is based in Seoul.

According to North Korea Leadership Watch, Richardson also asked the North to stop nuclear and missile testing.

One good note from the trip? Schmidt's words about greater internet freedom were apparently well received by North Korea's officials.

Many businessmen with interests in North Korea believed the trip was an attempt by Google to gain access to the North Korea market if the North decides to relax its internet restrictions.

Schmidt said that he met with North Korean scientists and software engineers to discuss internet and technology development.

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul.