Eric Schmidt Is Going to North Korea

... but it's probably not to launch

RTR38DPR-615.jpgKim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Eric Schmidt is going where no Google exec has gone before: to the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Schmidt's trip could happen within weeks, reports the AP:

It was not immediately clear who Schmidt and Richardson expect to meet in North Korea, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with the United States. North Korea has almost no business with companies in the U.S., which has banned the import of North Korean-made goods.

Whomever Schmidt ends up talking to, we can rule out the arrival of Google in Pyongyang anytime soon -- despite Kim Jong Un's surprisingly conciliatory tone toward science and technology in his New Year's address Tuesday, North Korea remains among the world's most closed societies. Just this past year, North Korea signed up its millionth 3G data subscriber in a country of over 24 million.

A better way to think of Schmidt's trip might be as less of an ambassador for Google than for interconnectedness more generally. It's a hat he's worn before. Here's what he, along with former State Department official Jared Cohen, predicted in Foreign Affairs for digitally young states back in 2010:

States in the developing world -- grouped here as "partially connected" nations -- face a different set of opportunities and challenges in incorporating connection technologies. The stakes are especially high for those with weak or failed central governments, underdeveloped economies, populations that are disproportionately young and unemployed, and cultures that lend themselves to opposition and dissent, and also for those contending with outside pressures from large and engaged diasporas living in technologically advanced nations. The sudden influx of connection technologies into these societies will threaten the status quo, leaving fragile governments in potentially unstable positions. [...]

A second and equally large group of developing countries are the "connecting nations" -- places where technological development is still nascent and where both governments and citizens are testing out tools and their potential impact. In these states, connection technologies are not yet sufficiently prevalent to present major opportunities or challenges. Although these states will invariably rise into the ranks of the partially connected, it is too early to determine what this will mean for the relationship among citizens, their governments, and neighboring nations.

Some of these states, such as Cuba, Myanmar (also called Burma), and Yemen, have tried to wall off access to certain technologies entirely. For example, they have confined access to cell phones to the elite; this, however, has led to a communications black market, which is most often used for daily communication but harbors the capacity to foment opposition. Activists in these states and in their diasporas--such as those working along Myanmar's border with Thailand--try daily to break the information blockade. In the short term, the regimes that govern these nations will do their best to maintain monopolies on the tools of communication.

It's unclear which type of state Schmidt thinks North Korea is. The distinction might be effectively meaningless in any case for a land whose people are so disempowered and authoritarianism so complete. North Korea's economy may be struggling, but Pyongyang's power has never fallen into question and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which it would, even if the people somehow managed to overcome more than 60 years of state-imposed weakness to challenge a government that thinks nothing of punishing three generations of a family for every one of its members that defects.

In some ways, by voluntarily expanding the use of connection technologies in North Korea, Pyongyang has already gotten ahead of the game. Controlling new means of communication before they become co-opted by an emergent opposition is the key to regime survival, some experts believe. In North Korea, not only does the government have absolute power over the airwaves and data lines, there is no popular opposition to speak of -- a luxury many Middle East regimes do not enjoy.

"One way to understand the Arab revolution," a prominent technologist told The Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg at last year's Aspen Ideas Festival, "is that it was a failure to censure and control the Internet."

That analysis comes courtesy of one Eric Schmidt.

Update, Jan. 3: Schmidt may not be going after all, according to reports by Reuters and AFP. The State Department has indicated that the timing for Schmidt's trip isn't right in light of Pyongyang's recent missile test.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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