Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt may travel to North Korea over opposition from the U.S. State Department, becoming the highest profile businessman to visit the isolated nation since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as leader just over a year ago.
Schmidt is planning a “private” visit to North Korea, South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai Young told reporters Thursday, confirming a report by the Associated Press, which said the 57-year-old executive would accompany former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Cho said South Korea doesn’t have details of the delegation or timing of any travel.
“Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday in Washington, when asked about reports of the trip.
Nuland said Schmidt and Richardson “are well aware of our views” that the timing for a visit is wrong in light of North Korea’s Dec. 11 launch of a long-range rocket that deployed a satellite into space. The United Nations Security Council condemned the launch as a violation of its prohibition on ballistic missile tests by North Korea.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, doesn’t comment on personal trips by company executives, Google Korea spokeswoman Lois Kim said when contacted by telephone Thursday.
A visit by a top executive of Google, which has the corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil,” may be intended to help secure the release of a U.S. citizen being held in North Korea, said Yoo Ho Yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Seoul’s Korea University. The visit would come after Kim abandoned his usual saber-rattling in a speech calling for better relations with the incoming South Korean government.
“U.S. businessmen have previously accompanied former U.S. presidents traveling to North Korea to secure the release of detained citizens,” Yoo said. “For Google’s long-term interests, Schmidt may visit for business reasons including market research, but most likely it is to financially sponsor channels of dialogue with the North, including Governor Richardson.”
North Korea confirmed last month it had detained an American citizen after he entered the country in November to lead a tour. The man, identified as Pae Jun Ho, confessed to committing a crime against North Korea after entering Nov. 3, the official Korean Central News Agency reported at the time, without specifying the crime.
Nuland, who said she was limited in discussing the detained American because of privacy considerations, said “we are obviously quite active on this case” with contacts through Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang.
The AP report said Schmidt and Richardson may travel to North Korea as early as this month. It cited two unidentified people familiar with the group’s plans.
A potential visit by Richardson and Schmidt may resemble the case of two American journalists who were detained after crossing the border between China and North Korea in March 2009 and held for illegal entry, Yoo said. Euna Lee and Laura Ling were released five months later after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to press for a pardon.
In 2010, former President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegal entry into the North via China. Carter didn’t meet then-leader Kim Jong Il.
President George W. Bush named North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iran and Iraq in 2002. North Korea, a military-first state with 1.7 million of its 24 million people in the armed services, has twice detonated an atomic bomb and last month launched the rocket that bolstered the nation’s ballistic capabilities.
Since then, Kim has adopted a more conciliatory tone. In a speech delivered on state television and radio on Jan. 1, he called for economic growth, including an emphasis on coal and metal production, as well as the reunification of North and South Korea, which remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended without a peace treaty.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin included the “Don’t Be Evil” credo in a letter attached to their initial public offering filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004.
Schmidt has been supportive of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the past, participating in events such as a gathering of technology executives she hosted at the State Department.
Google is unlikely to be trying to start a business in North Korea through the visit, Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement. Still, a visit would be an “interesting development,” he said.
“The restricted control of information lies at the heart of the DPRK state, and yet it is about to host one of the West’s greatest facilitators of borderless information flows,” Cha said. “The new young leader Kim Jong Un clearly has a penchant for the modern accouterments of life.”
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