This week's visit to North Korea by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has drawn attention to Pyongyang's policy of severely limiting Internet access to the nation's ruling elite and their families.
Schmidt directly addressed that policy as he ended his four-day private mission to the reclusive communist state. Speaking to reporters after landing in Beijing on Thursday, he said he warned Pyongyang that its continued isolation from global information networks will harm economic growth.
"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," Schmidt said. "It is their choice now, and in my view, it is time for them to start, or they will remain behind."
Schmidt visited several North Korean technological facilities this week as part of a small American delegation on a self-declared "humanitarian" mission. He has been a vocal supporter of providing people around the world with Internet access, a right denied to almost all North Koreans.
The U.S. State Department's latest human-rights report on North Korea said Internet usage was limited to "high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including select university students." It said a "slightly larger group" of users can access a North Korean government-run intranet that contains only state-sanctioned content.
The U.S. research group East-West Center
has said only a "very few" senior North Korean officials can use a fully uncensored Internet. In a report
published in October, it said more North Koreans have a limited ability to "gather data on the United States, South Korea, and other governments; identify data that could populate the DPRK intranet; and maintain the network of propaganda websites that North Korea aims at the outside world."
North Korea also has a third-generation mobile phone network that it launched in 2008 through a joint-venture with Egyptian company Orascom. The network now has one million users, but they cannot connect to the Internet or make overseas calls.
Washington-based blogger Joshua Stanton, who runs a website called One Free Korea
, said in an interview with VOA that North Korea's mobile phones are available only to the nation's wealthiest people.
"Most North Koreans have no way to communicate freely with with North Koreans in other cities. They have no way to spread news. They have no way to form churches or unions or the kinds of organizations that other people have," Stanton said. "If it would become possible for North Koreans to talk with or text with people elsewhere in North Korea or even in South Korea, everything suddenly changes and then the system cannot contain the people's aspirations anymore."
The East-West Center said that while North Korea's information technology networks are limited, they represent a "fundamental shift." For the first time, the government seems willing to let its privileged class access data and communicate to support the development of the nation.
Another member of this week's American delegation, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, said he was unable to meet with an American citizen detained in North Korea. Pyongyang has threatened to put the Korean-American tourist Kenneth Bae on trial for unspecified crimes against the state.
"We expressed concern to the North Korean officials about the American detainee," he said. "We were informed that his health is good, that the judicial proceedings would start soon. That is encouraging. I was also given permission to proceed with a letter from his son, and that will happen shortly."
Richardson said he also urged North Korean officials to introduce a "moratorium on ballistic missiles and a possible nuclear test." Washington and its allies have been pushing for new sanctions against Pyongyang for carrying out a long-range rocket test last month. The State Department criticized the timing of the American delegation's mission as "unhelpful."
Speaking to VOA, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likely believes the high-profile American visitors gave his leadership a degree of international recognition.
"Visits from senior officials and extraordinarily successful entrepreneurs are going to help to raise the profile of the North Korea regime," Scarlatoiu said. "Probably from the North Korean regime's viewpoint, they may think this may also be an opportunity to create some business opportunities in the process, to make some money for the regime, but it's hard to think how that may be possible."