Google's Schmidt talks to Pyongyang – in context

Top Google executive Eric Schmidt has been and gone to Pyongyang, North Korea, where he told the despotic administration that its only hope for progress is internet freedom – but the matter is a little more complicated in the isolationist state than simply going online.

North Korea, the isolated military-cult nation run since the 50s by the Kim family, currently only operates a private ethernet, and according to the limited amount of first-hand accounts, this is largely available to the privileged sections of society.

Schmidt told officials that without opening its country to the internet, it will “remain behind”. North Korea has historically been hit hard by economic sanctions led by the United States for its controversial military and alleged nuclear program. Since the collapse of the USSR, North Korea was left with ultra-Capitalist, and communist in name China as its only ally, ultimately leaving its military strength as its primary bargaining chip in international relations and welfare for some time. Despite paying lip service to North Korea with revolutionary rhetoric, China is still an ally mostly because it doesn’t want the trouble of a disastrous war – with heavy international implications – in its back yard.

Current head of state, Kim Jong Un, in a New Year’s address, hinted at technological innovation as becoming the basis for his leadership. Since taking office, it is thought Jong Un will need to differentiate himself from Kim Jong Il and find a niche into which he can fit, and use to promote himself as a strong and competent leader. Tied up in propaganda and revolutionary rhetoric, Jong Un did hint at a more open state – after all, he was educated in the West and is not as unfamiliar with how the world operates outside of North Korea’s borders as many of his countrymen, who are purposefully kept in the dark. Jong Un said that his country should “bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant on the strength of science and technology,” by “fanning the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century”.

Jong Un went on to say that North Korea must “push back the frontiers of science and technology” to develop the country, and that all sectors of the national economy should “direct primary efforts to the development of science and technology”.

It is within this context that Schmidt visited Pyongyang. The Google chairman said that, as the world becomes increasingly connected, North Korea’s “decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth”. He went on to say that, once the internet is up and running, “citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it”.

“The government has to do something,” Schmidt said. “It has to make it possible for people to use the internet which the government in North Korea has not yet done”.

Bringing the internet to North Korea would dramatically open its borders in a very short space of time. Though it is still likely the privileged sections of Pyongyang who would be the main benefactors, the Party’s rule relies on its isolationist position. Smuggled South Korean soap opera tapes, for example, are influencing opinions about the outside world in the country. Even with considerable censorship, the open nature of the internet could smash cultural misconceptions that have been drilled into the public since the Korean war – and it could well be a shock. The internet, after all, has a tendency to un-censor itself, even in the most heavily censored parts of the world.

For Schmidt, humanitarian concerns aside, North Korea opening up to money from outside its borders would eventually be an investment opportunity. Jong Un, who is keen to be seen as a technologically enlightened leader, will be open to some influence, especially at a fragile moment in his career.

Just as there was increased pressure on Cuba to allow for outside investment following the fall of the USSR, North Korea – so far, stubborn to give up its self determination, which is a fundamental principle of the Juche idea  – is also sensitive to being cracked open for new markets. The semi-feudal state is notoriously harsh on its own people, with reports that dissidents are sent to brutal concentration and ‘re-education’ camps, and with heavy sanctions and without aid from the USSR its population fell victim to particularly vicious famines – though not, of course, the party leadership. A jump to the open nature of the internet opens an enormous can of worms.

The resulting outcome is dependent on the Kim family and senior party officials. Whatever happens, Jong Un seems keen to paint himself as a different kind of leader, and the geopolitical implications in that region and worldwide will be far reaching, if the dictatorship’s control is relinquished at all.