Google's Eric Schmidt is back from his much-publicized trip to North Korea, and he's got a few details to share about his humanitarian mission.
The search giant's executive chairman had already revealed some of the reasoning behind his trip to reporters during a briefing a week and a half ago at the Beijing airport, saying that his private delegation urged North Korean officials to open up global Internet access if they wanted to strengthen their economy. The delegation was led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is also a former ambassador to the U.N.
In a post last night on his Google+ page, Schmidt opened up more about his thoughts on Internet access in the country, explaining that North Korea's decision to essentially isolate itself from the global Net is going to "make it harder for them to catch up economically."
He noted that while Internet access is possible for government officials and the military and while there is a private intranet set up for universities, the general public does not have access to the Internet unless someone is watching them.
Furthermore, he said that it was obvious that the country's technology is limited. "There is a 3G network that is a joint venture with an Egyptian company called Orascom. It is a 2100 Megahertz SMS-based technology network, that does not, for example, allow users to have a data connection and use smart phones," he wrote.
A separate blog post written by Schmidt's daughter Sophie, who accompanied him on the trip, included even more details of their visit, along with a series of photos. She described the country as "very, very cold" and "very, very strange."
"Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw," she wrote.
The delegation apparently visited the Palace of the Sun, Kim Il Sung's former office and now the national mausoleum where Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's bodies lie in state, as well as the Kim II Sung University e-Library, which she described eerily as a room of 90 desks, all manned, with just one problem: "No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared."
Some other interesting tidbits from her post:
- We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.
- Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).
- Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference.
- We were told well ahead of time to assume that everything was bugged: phones, cars, rooms, meetings, restaurants and who knows what else.
- This is a country in a permanent revolutionary state, and everything you see reflects that dug-in, determined, fiercely independent quality.
- Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.).
- North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this.
The State Department had frowned upon the group's visit to the country, saying that the timing wasn't right. A department spokeswoman cited recent missile launches by North Korea as a reason for discouraging the mission.