After much speculation following an AP story, the office of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson finally confirmed that he is indeed headed to North Korea again; late-breaking coverage suggests they are headed out today. Richardson will head a delegation that includes Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Dr. KA (Tony) Namkung—who has long maintained back-channel connections to North Korea—and Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, the company’s New York-based think tank. Victor Cha offered up some early thoughts on the visit.
Richardson’s objectives center at least in part on securing the release of Kenneth Bae (Pae Jun Ho), who was arrested last month in North Korea under mysterious circumstances. His detention was first reported by the South Korean media, which claimed that Bae was a tour operator who had entered North Korea at Rason with five other tourists. Irony of ironies given the Google delegation: Yonhap claims that the detention might have occurred because one of the tour members was carrying a hard drive with “sensitive information.” In North Korea, “sensitive information” could be anything, including an excuse to secure a high-level visit.
The real speculation is not about Bae but about what Google is thinking. Jared Cohen has advised the State Department, and heads Google’s New York-based think tank Google Ideas. According to its website, Google Ideas is “a think/do tank that convenes unorthodox stakeholders, commissions research, and seeds initiatives to explore the role that technology can play in tackling some of the toughest human challenges.” Its focus areas include Counter-radicalization, Illicit Networks and Fragile States.
A focus on North Korea actually makes a lot of sense; the country is the n’est plus ultra of information suppression. According to a long feature in the Mail, Cohen and Schmidt are working on a book about the Internet’s role in shaping society called “The New Digital Age” due out in April. The point: that IT has a powerful role in addressing poverty among other things. A piece in the San Jose Mercury News suggests that Cohen is hardly an innocent with respect to North Korea. Last July, he apparently organized and spoke at a conferencethat featured nearly a dozen North Korean defectors. VOA’s Steve Herman also provides information on the Google-North Korea connection via the Asia Society’s Peter Beck. Beck claims that Google Ideas has hosted several North Korea-related events. During a 2011 visit by a delegation of North Korea economic officials–in which we were involved–Google was on the Northern California itinerary.
The Obama administration seems surprisingly agitated at the visit, at least if State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is indicative. We reproduce the relevant section of her press conference last week below. She goes to great pains to say that no officials are going on the visit, that no message was being carried, and that the administration did not think the timing was right given the launch.
So what are the pros and cons? The negatives seem largely symbolic: Richardson and Google make the trip, which will be portrayed internally as a kind of modern-day kow-tow. But against that, the hapless Bae might get a reprieve. Richardson can bring back some real-time information. Schmidt can make the case for opening up, and may end up getting some case material for his book; North Korea could end up as a case study of a very different type than the regime might want.
But the futility–and irony–of the effort still have us scratching our heads. AP has just done a very nice story on the new crackdown on information smuggling and transborder movement in recent months. Can you imagine Kim Jong Un’s response to a Schmidt powerpoint on the liberating power of Google? And do we need to mention the difficult history of Google in China, a country that is a free society by comparison with North Korea? Google was forced into complex compromises, and faced substantial criticism, for efforts to sustain its China presence in the face off government censorship of Google searches; Wikipedia provides a useful overview. We sympathize with the constraints Google faced in China and don’t fault them for giving Pyongyang a college try. But the information giant has more than met its match.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask about Google CEO/Chairman Eric Schmidt’s apparent possible trip to North Korea, and what kind of guidance has come to him from the State Department. What sort of advice have you given him on counseling him what to say or what to ask about or when to go? What messages are you carrying? He’s obviously been a good ally and friend of the Secretary, so I assume he wouldn’t do this without checking first.
MS. NULAND: With regard to the trip, we are obviously aware of the trip that has been announced for Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Governor Richardson. As you know, they are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity. They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions.
QUESTION: Why don’t you think the timing is particularly helpful?
MS. NULAND: Well, in light of recent actions by the D.P.R.K., obviously.
QUESTION: By that, you mean the missile?
MS. NULAND: Correct.
QUESTION: And did your express your view to them? I mean, it – that the timing was not right?
MS. NULAND: They are well aware of our views.
QUESTION: And they’re going ahead notwithstanding?
MS. NULAND: I would refer you to them with regard to their plans.
QUESTION: You said the trip that was announced, but to my knowledge it has not been announced. To my knowledge, there was a story by the Associated Press saying that they were going, but I don’t believe Google has announced it and I don’t believe Governor Richardson’s office has announced or confirmed it.
MS. NULAND: So, bad verb choice on my part; that we’ve seen this press reporting with regard to this.
QUESTION: Would you rather that they not go now, that they cancel any plans they have to go for now, given your – that you think the time is not right?
MS. NULAND: Well, as I said, we don’t think the timing of the visit is helpful, and they’re well aware of our views.
QUESTION: And did they talk to Ambassador Davies or anybody else in the building about their plans in advance?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into any further details with regard to our contact except to say that they are well aware of the U.S. Government’s view on this.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) that they were – apparently one of the goals was to help win the release of this American citizen, is that not something – I mean, I think – my understanding was the timing was they wanted to get that American citizen out as soon as possible. Is that not something that the State Department is assisting them with in terms of any support or guidance in how they might achieve that?
MS. NULAND: Again, they are not going on our behalf. No American official is going with them. They are not carrying any messages from us. That said, with regard to the U.S. citizen who’s been detained in North Korea, I think we’ve said here before that we are in contact with the D.P.R.K. with regard to him through the Embassy of Sweden, which is our protecting power in Pyongyang. They have been granted consular access to him and they are providing all appropriate consular assistance.
Due to privacy considerations, I can’t go into it any more, but we are obviously quite active on this case.
QUESTION: One follow?
MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Toria, Happy New Year.
MS. NULAND: Happy New Year, Mr. Lee.
QUESTION: As you know, North Korea still object to U.S. sanction – U.S. economic sanctions. Do you think it is possible for Google to do business there in North Korea legally?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, without knowing what might be planned, et cetera, Google, like all U.S. companies, are subject to the restrictions under U.S. law.
QUESTION: I think you answered this question maybe, but do you know the timing of their trip to North Korea?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to refer you to them. As our colleagues have said, this is press information so far.
QUESTION: Would you be happy to see Google help North Korea to expand their internet access to the global community?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we support internet freedom around the world. We support the right of all people to have access to the internet, and we oppose government restrictions on that wherever they are found. That said, all U.S. companies are subject to the U.S. sanctions regime with regard to the D.P.R.K.