SEOUL — A top official of one of the world's best known online companies is reportedly preparing to visit a country with the least access to the Internet. The Associated Press says Google's Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, will go to North Korea, perhaps this month. A Google spokesperson does not deny the report, but says only that the company does not comment on private travel by its officials.
Eric Schmidt is known for his advocacy of Internet freedom, so it is somewhat ironic that he intends to go to the country with perhaps the most severe restrictions on access to the web.
Only a few thousand of North Korea's elite are believed to enjoy Internet privileges.
But the Korea representative of the Asia Foundation is not surprised Schmidt would be willing to go to Pyongyang. Peter Beck says North Korea and Google have significant interest in each other.
“They've hosted a range of lectures and delegations by individuals and groups working on North Korea at their facility. And, in fact, my foundation -- the Asia Foundation -- was one of the co-sponsors of a group of ten North Korean officials who visited the United States in 2011 and one of the places that we took them to was Google,” he said.
As one of the world's most impoverished countries, North Korea appears to have few prospects as a lucrative market for Google. The top Internet search provider has a market capitalization of about $235 billion - nearly six times North Korea's estimated total gross domestic product.
Asia Foundation's Beck says Schmidt appears to have other priorities regarding Pyongyang.
“I don't think that there are any tremendous economic opportunities for Google in North Korea. But I think it's part of Google's broader commitment of bringing information technology to the world," Beck said. "And North Korea is really the last frontier in some ways. It is really the most isolated country when it comes to the Internet and Google could be a very powerful way of bringing more of the Internet to North Korea.”
There is some speculation that Schmidt's visit could, in part, include an attempt to secure the release of an American citizen held in North Korea.
Tour operator Kenneth Bae is of Korean descent and a resident of the state of Oregon. According to a North Korean official dispatch, Bae was arrested last month for unspecified crimes against the state.
The Associated Press says Schmidt will join a private group led by Bill Richardson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and is a former governor of the state of New Mexico.
Richardson, in the past, has made trips to North Korea to negotiate the release of Americans held there.
The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations. The reclusive and impoverished state is under international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development activities.