Why Is Google Chairman Eric Schmidt Visiting North Korea?

What's to come?
Jan. 7 2013 2:41 PM

Mr. Schmidt Goes to Pyongyang

Google’s chairman is visiting North Korea. Will the hermit kingdom finally permit the Internet?

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Examples like these illustrate how even the most basic access to information could be devastating to the North Korean regime. North Korea is built on a myth: that it is a great country to live in, that nothing is lacking, and that the outside world should be viewed with fear and distrust. When people discover that their homeland is built on lies, they lose faith in the regime.

The lies have been so pervasive that even the most apolitical information can corrode them. A North Korean watching a South Korean love story on a foreign Korean DVD would not fail to notice, for example, that the refrigerator in the background is full of food. Demick told me another story about a North Korean she met sometime around 2004, who had worked for the country’s fisheries division. He had access to foreign radio via a Chinese fishing boat that was confiscated for entering North Korean waters. The boat had a radio, and so he was able to listen to a South Korean radio drama. One such drama featured two women living in an apartment complex who are fighting over a parking space. Initially, the North Korean thought it was a parody: How could South Korea possibly have so many cars that people fight for parking spaces? He soon figured out that it was not a joke. A year later, he defected.

If a few snippets of South Korean radio or television can shatter North Koreans’ vision of the world, just imagine if they had access to the World Wide Web. Of course, any such access would be surveilled and censored to unimaginable extremes. North Korea’s leaders are likely watching China, which has shown great skill in employing both technology and human censors to keep its Internet in check. Yet even with these controls the Internet has transformed countless Chinese lives by granting previously unimaginable access to information and (virtual) assembly.

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In North Korea, where the regime is far more brittle and shrouded in myth, the effect would be even more dramatic. No, the Internet would not automatically trigger a North Korean spring. Revolutions are sparked by economic and political crises, or other events that brings public discontent to a boiling point. But when such events occur, a networked and informed society is far more likely to rise to the occasion.

Victor Cha, a former U.S. official who handled North Korean issues for the White House, told me that for years the United States has been trying to de-nuclearize North Korea, and “we’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. And maybe the truth is that we are not going to de-nuclearize them, we just need to get more information into the country.” This, of course, will not be easy to do. But if anyone could do it, it would be a company like Google.

I am not advocating that Google establish a permanent presence in North Korea, which in any event would be nearly impossible. Nor is Google, which in 2010 pulled out of mainland China citing censorship and security risks, naive about these kinds of entanglements. But the good news is that the company can add value without setting up servers in Pyongyang. The trip should be viewed as a powerful act of symbolism: A champion of connectivity lands in the world’s most reclusive nation. Schmidt’s very presence in North Korea will connote the flash and glamour of information technology, reminding North Korean leaders that a country cannot be truly modern without the Internet. And this could pose a temptation that no dictator can resist.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Emily Parker is a Future Tense fellow and digital diplomacy adviser at the New America Foundation. She is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are.