The trip, analysts said, is unlikely to spawn immediate change in North Korea, whose family-run leadership prohibits outside information as a way to maintain its power. Google, too, would likely balk at a partnership with Pyongyang: The search engine would face restrictions in North Korea far more severe than those in China, the country from which it pulled out in 2010 because of Internet censorship.
But Schmidt, who is responsible for Google’s government outreach, could push for North Korea to loosen restrictions in limited areas, such as in its education programs, analysts said.
“The restricted control of information lies at the heart of [North Korea], and yet it is about to host one of the West’s greatest facilitators of borderless information flows,” Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an issue brief about the trip. “If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development.”
Schmidt said in a speech last year that governments — either by imposing restrictions on their citizens or by perpetrating state-sponsored cybercrime — pose the greatest danger to the Internet.
North Korea is cut off economically from almost every country but China, and global rankings place it among the most corrupt and restrictive nations. Citizens are told where to live. They’re banned from dissent and punished in labor camps. Their televisions and radios are fixed to state-run channels and stations.
But despite that, North Korea already has some sophisticated communications infrastructure, with a 3G network that allows for domestic telephone calls and a nationwide Intranet — separate from the World Wide Web — with its own portals and messaging systems.
“The day when the government decides to open the sluice and authorize the wholesale transfer of domestic websites to the national servers connected to the world-wide web, the floodgates will be swung widely open and the Internet boom is certain to unleash,” said a November 2011 report from the Nautilus Institute about technology in North Korea.
Only several hundred elite families are allowed access to the global Internet. But North Korea’s propaganda department uses sophisticated Web sites — some hosted in China — as well as social media similar to Twitter to spread near-daily propaganda messages.
The importance of modern technology has been a core part of North Korea’s propaganda for more than a decade.
In a speech this week, 29-year-old leader Kim Jong Eun called for a science and technology “revolution” that would act as the shortcut “to the building of an economic giant.”
It is not immediately clear with whom Richardson and Schmidt will meet. Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has traveled frequently to North Korea on private missions. He could also use the trip to push for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American detained in the North.
North Korea’s state-run media said last month that it had arrested an American citizen who had entered the country as a tourist for unspecified crimes.
“He was put into custody by a relevant institution,” the North said, and was allowed to meet with Swedish consular officials, who look after U.S. interests in the North.