Perhaps it’s not quite the same level of importance as President Nixon’s famous visit to China, but Eric Schmidt’s journey to North Korea this month alongside New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson certainly evokes the image of the West reaching east to a nation that has been closed off from most parts of the world for a long time.
Google’s Schmidt is back home now, and both he and his daughter Sophie (who accompanied her old man on the trip), have posted updates on their travels. His is brief and focused, and hers is lengthy and wide-ranging.
The senior Schmidt noted that he was in Pyongyang to discuss the “free and open Internet”, which would ostensibly connect the Hermit Kingdom to the rest of the world for the first time in decades. According to Schmidt, Internet technology in Korea is limited, but there does exist a 3G network (2100MHz, based on SMS), but users can’t use it for data on their phones there.
They also found that there is a (supervised) Internet as well as a private Intranet that is linked with the country’s universities. Basically, the government, military, and universities are connected, but the general public doesn’t really have meaningful free Internet access.
From Schmidt’s post, we infer that he was clear on the following when speaking to Korean government officials:
- Once the internet starts in any country, citizens in that country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do one thing: open up the Internet first. They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government of North Korea has not yet done. It is their choice now, and in my view, it’s time for them to start, or they will remain behind.
Sophie Schmidt’s post is actually far more interesting. She gives the color commentary, as it were, and it’s fascinating. For example, the nine-person delegation left their phones and laptops behind in China, because they were told that the devices would be confiscated upon arrival in North Korea and would be returned, but not unmolested.
There was no heat inside any of the buildings, so even as officials were showing off their best technology in some lab or library, everyone was freezing and could see their breath. Everyone was very friendly, but they were told that every room and vehicle they would be in for the duration of their trip was bugged. There are very few cars outside of the city center, so people could more or less walk down the middle of the street, but there was no street-level commerce to take advantage of the foot traffic. Trucks roamed the streets blaring propaganda over loudspeakers, though. Commuters using the Metro apparently always carry flashlights because the power cuts out all the time. They visited an e-library, but Sophie noted that most of the dozens of people sitting at the computers weren’t actually doing much more than staring at the screens.
Both posts are well worth a read, whether you’re curious about the present and future of North Korean technology or are merely interested in peeking behind the North Korean veil (as much as that is possible).