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January 22, 2013

Daughter of Google Exec Dishes About North Korea Trip

The daughter of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who was part of a recent controversial private delegation to North Korea with her father, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google executive Jared Cohen, is describing the trip as an eye-opener.

“It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like,” Sophie Schmidt wrote in her blog.

“Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.  We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other). The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.”

The private delegation led by Richardson was for two purposes: politically, to win the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide from Washington who was detained by authorities last November and, technologically, to discuss the country’s ban on the Internet.

Neither purpose was successful. Bae, who has been accused of “hostile acts” by the North Korean government was not released, although Richardson was assured Bae was well and judicial proceedings were set to begin soon.

Schmidt was also unable to meet with the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-un, during the three-day delegation.

“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world,” Schmidt told reporters Jan. 10 at the Beijing airport. “The government has to do something — they have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government in North Korea has not yet done. It is time now for them to start or they will remain behind.”

Sophie described the life of an average North Korean as being in “a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference.”

“My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave?” she wrote in her blog “They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it.  And the opacity of the country’s inner workings — down to the basics of its economy — further serves to reinforce the state’s control.

“The best description we could come up with: it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale.”

The group was warned to expect little privacy during the trip. Bugs, they were told, could be in phones, cars, rooms, meetings and restaurants.

“My father’s reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open,” she wrote.

“Since we didn’t have cellphones or alarm clocks,  the question of how we’d wake up on time in the morning was legitimate.  One person suggested announcing  ‘I’m awake’ to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.”

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library was eerie, according to Sophie’s account of the visit. With 90 computer stations in the room, each one occupied, it should have been a flurry of online activity.  But as Sophie’s blog indicates, “no one was actually doing anything.”

“A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow — not one of them looked up from their desks.  Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.”

The visit, Sophie said, made them question if the people were real students or if they were props in a scene staged for the delegation’s benefit — perhaps in a bid to convince them the country was not as closed to its citizens surfing the Internet as it appeared.

The following excerpt from the blog describes Sophie’s take on the North Korean technological front:

Everything that is accessible is accessible only in special tiers.

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not Smartphones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.  Our understanding is that some university students have access to this.  On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo’d their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet.  Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable.  We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff. 

What’s so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it’s not like they’re going to export this technology.  They’re building products for a market that doesn’t exist.  

Those in the know are savvier than you’d expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, “When is the next version of Android coming out?” and “Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?”  Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you’re under international bank sanctions. 

They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can’t hope to keep it out.  Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we’ll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.