Google chairman arrives in North Korea on controversial trip

Google chairman Eric Schmidt, along with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, has arrived in North Korea for the start of a two or three day visit.

While Schmidt hasn’t revealed the reasons behind his visit, Richardson – a repeat visitor to the country – says it’s a “private humanitarian mission, not connected to the US government”.

This may be a reference to Kenneth Bae, an American citizen of Korean descent who is currently held awaiting trial in the country. Bae’s son is reported to have asked Richardson – who’s been involved in negotiating the release of US citizens before – for his help.

Other members of the delegation include international relations consultant KA Namkung and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, as well as other Google staffers.

The decision to visit the country at this particular time has drawn criticism from the US State Department. North Korea recently launched a long-range rocket which it said was being used to put a satellite into orbit – but which critics have claimed was actually a weapons test.

“We don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions,” says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

But Richardson has brushed aside such concerns. In an interview with CBS, he commented: “I don’t work for the US government; neither does Eric Schmidt. I know the State Department is a little nervous, but we did postpone this trip already. Eric and I were going in December, and at the request of the State Department, we postponed it because of the South Korean presidential election.”

North Korea has a set of internet policies that make China and Iran look permissive. Almost nobody outside the highest echelons of government has an internet connection. Instead, there’s an internal intranet within the country.

Schmidt hasn’t commented on whether Google has plans within North Korea, but Richardson told reporters: “This is not a Google trip, but I’m sure he’s  interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect.