BEIJING — The executive chairman of U.S.-based Google, one of the world’s largest Internet companies, was traveling Monday to North Korea, a nation with notoriously restrictive online policies.
Eric Schmidt, the most high-profile U.S. business executive to visit North Korea since young leader Kim Jong Un took power a year ago, was in Beijing and scheduled to depart for Pyongyang aboard a commercial Air China flight.
Leading the delegation was Democratic former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has traveled more than a half-dozen times to North Korea over the past 20 years. Richardson called the trip a private, humanitarian mission.
“This is not a Google trip, but I’m sure he’s interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this,” Richardson said without elaborating on what he meant by the “social media aspect.”
“We’ll meet with North Korean political leaders. We’ll meet with North Korean economic leaders, military. We’ll visit some universities. We don’t control the visit. They will let us know what the schedule is when we get there,” he said.
Richardson also said the delegation plans to inquire about a Korean-American U.S. citizen detained in North Korea.
“We’re going to try to inquire the status, see if we can see him, possibly lay the groundwork for him coming home,” Richardson said. “I heard from his son who lives in Washington state, who asked me to bring him back. I doubt we can do it on this trip.”
The four-day trip, which is taking place just weeks after North Korea fired a satellite into space using a long-range rocket, has drawn criticism from U.S. officials. Washington condemned the Dec. 12 launch, which it considers a test of ballistic missile technology, as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from developing its nuclear and missile programs. The Security Council is deliberating whether to take further action.
“We don’t think the timing of the visit is helpful, and they are well aware of our views,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters last week.
The trip was planned well before North Korea announced its plans to send a satellite into space, two people with knowledge of the delegation’s plans told The Associated Press. AP first reported the group’s plans last Thursday. Schmidt, a staunch proponent of Internet connectivity and openness, is expected to make a donation during the visit, members of the delegation told AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to divulge details of the delegation’s plans to the media.
The visit is the first by a Google executive to North Korea and comes just days after Kim, who took power following the Dec. 17, 2011, death of his father, Kim Jong Il, laid out a series of policy goals for North Korea in a lengthy New Year’s speech. He cited expanding science and technology as a means to improving the country’s economy as a key goal for 2013.
Computer and cellphone use is gaining ground in North Korea’s larger cities.
However, most North Koreans have access only to a domestic Intranet system, not the World Wide Web. For North Koreans, Internet use is still strictly regulated and allowed only with approval.
Schmidt, who oversaw Google’s expansion into a global giant, speaks frequently about the importance of providing people around the world with Internet access and technology.
Google now has offices in more than 40 countries, including all three of North Korea’s neighbors: Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticized for systematic Internet censorship.
Accompanying Schmidt is Jared Cohen, a former U.S. State Department policy and planning adviser who heads Google’s New York-based think tank. The two collaborated on a book about the Internet’s role in shaping society called “The New Digital Age,” which comes out in April.