While the motivations behind Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recently completed trip to North Korea remain unclear, he clearly upstaged his host, former New Mexico Governor and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson.
Richardson was ostensibly there to help win or accelerate the release of a Korean-American, Kenneth Bae, being held in captivity. But Schmidt was the focus of much of the attention and coverage. Richardson said Schmidt was greeted like a “rock star” by the North Koreans.
And while it was billed as a “private humanitarian mission,” Richardson sounded like a US diplomat on an official trip. According to the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of a press conference held in Bejing, China earlier today:
Mr. Richardson said he told North Korea’s top vice minister for nuclear negotiations that Pyongyang should temper its nuclear-development efforts. “We need dialogue on the peninsula, not confrontation,” he told reporters. He also said he pushed Pyongyang for a moratorium on ballistic-missile tests, and that officials responded by insisting that the recent satellite launch was for peaceful reasons.
Eric Schmidt’s message to the North Koreans was apparently about the virtues and economic imperative of becoming a more open society, at least when it comes to the internet. He reportedly told North Korean officials that their economy would suffer further as a result of its “virtual isolation.” As quoted in the WSJ, Schmidt said the following:
As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world
The point is accurate and perhaps Schmidt’s presence and stature as an executive from one of the world’s leading companies will have an impact on the new leadership’s thinking. But the idea that greater access to the internet will directly translate into a more open society is far from clear.
China has been able to maintain a high degree of control over the internet (read: censorship) even as its economy has prospered and become the second-largest in the world.