Google’s executive chairman has started a visit to North Korea which has sparked controversy and fascination.
Eric Schmidt arrived today in a country considered to have the world’s most restrictive internet policies. He is part of a delegation which includes former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.
It is the first trip by an executive from the California-based internet search provider to North Korea.
Also on the trip is Jared Cohen, director of the Google Ideas think-tank. Mr Cohen is a former State Department policy adviser.
Washington has criticised the trip as not “helpful”. North Korea has drawn criticism for launching a long-range rocket last month.
Mr Richardson has called the visit a “private humanitarian mission” but it is not clear what the group hopes to accomplish during the trip.
Mr Schmidt, who arrived on a commercial Air China flight, wants a first-hand look at North Korea's economy and social media during his private visit to the communist nation, his delegation said.
Mr Richardson, speaking ahead of the flight from Beijing, 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,” he 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.”
US officials have criticised the four-day trip.
On December 12 North Korea fired a satellite into space using a long-range rocket. Washington condemned the launch, which it considers a test of ballistic missile technology, as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from developing its nuclear and missile programmes. 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,” 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.
Mr Schmidt, a staunch proponent of internet connectivity and openness, is expected to make a donation during the visit, while Mr Richardson will try to discuss the detention of a US citizen jailed in Pyongyang, members of the delegation told AP.
“We’re going to try to inquire the status, see if we can see him, possibly lay the groundwork for him coming home,” Mr Richardson said of the US citizen. “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 visit comes just days after leader Kim Jong Un, who took power following the death on December 17 2011 of his father, Kim Jong Il, laid out a series of policy goals for North Korea in a lengthy New Year speech. He cited expanding science and technology as a means to improving the country’s economy as a key goal for 2013.
North Korea’s economy has languished for decades, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which since the mid-1940s had provided the country with an economic safety net. North Korea, which has very little arable land, has relied on outside help to feed its people since a famine in the 1990s.
In recent years, North Korea has aimed to modernise its farms and digitise its factories. Farmers told the AP that management policies were revamped to encourage production by providing workers with incentives.
Computer and mobile phone use is gaining ground in North Korea’s larger cities.
However, most North Koreans only have access to a domestic intranet system, not the world wide web. For North Koreans, internet use is still strictly regulated and allowed only with approval.
Mr Schmidt, who oversaw Google’s expansion into a global internet 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 neighbours: Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticised for systematic internet censorship.