Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea raised a few eyebrows, with the Google chairman’s mission to push the open-internet prompting no small amount of speculation; now, thanks to separate accounts from Schmidt and his daughter, we get a glimpse of what went on. Of the two reports, that of the senior Schmidt is the more political while the piece by his daughter, Sophie is arguably more interesting, taking a broader view on the at-times unusual atmosphere in the fiercely private country. “Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw” she says of the visit.
“Overall, the technology in North Korea is very limited right now” Eric Schmidt opens with, highlighting the single 3G network – which lacks data service – and the presence of a supervised internet connection and a North Korea intranet. “It would be very easy for them to turn the internet on for this 3G network” the Google exec suggests, somewhat ambitiously, continuing that “it would be easy to connect these [internet/intranet] networks to the global internet.”
Meanwhile, Schmidt also highlighted the North Korean’s development progress in open-source software and hardware, something which he says made “obvious to us that access to the internet and all of this was possible for the government, the military, and universities, but not for the general public.”
Sophie Schmidt, meanwhile, gives a more day-to-day account of the trip. “ Ours was the first American delegation in over a year, and the North Koreans we met were unfailingly polite and engaging, even excited to meet with us (particularly Eric)” she writes, though all on the visit had been “told well ahead of time to assume that everything was bugged: phones, cars, rooms, meetings, restaurants and who knows what else.”
“On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo’d their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff … What’s so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it’s not like they’re going to export this technology. They’re building products for a market that doesn’t exist” Sophie Schmidt
Despite the differing focuses of the two accounts, both converge at roughly the same conclusion: that connectivity, and the internet specifically, is essential if North Korea wants to have any sort of reasonable future. “As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth” Eric Schmidt argues. “It will make it harder for them to catch up economically.”
As for his daughter, she seems more hopeful that the internet age is finally coming to the country. “They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can’t hope to keep it out” she writes. “Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century.”