Google chairman Eric Schmidt said Thursday he had prodded North Korea to allow its citizens to access the Internet, after wrapping up a controversial trip to the isolated country.
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who led the delegation, said that he had expressed concern about North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and called for “fair and humane treatment” of an American citizen held in the hardline communist state.
Speaking to reporters at the Beijing airport at the end of their four-day trip to Pyongyang, Schmidt and Richardson said they had toured computer facilities, met with scientists and software engineers, and urged officials to allow greater access to the Internet.
Web access is restricted to the country’s super-elite and the government maintains its own intranet.
Schmidt said that if the Internet was not open to the public, North Korea would “remain behind” the rest of the world.
"As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth, and so forth and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically.”
“We made that alternative very, very clear,” he said.
Richardson said that the Internet is “important for the welfare of the North Korean people.”
Known as the "Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea maintains an iron grip on information and punishes those caught accessing foreign media.
Schmidt said that the technology in the country was “very limited,” with restricted access allowed for members of the government, the military, and universities but not for the general public.
Schmidt urged officials to open up web capabilities on the country’s growing mobile phone network as a way of allowing the public to access in the Internet.
The official Koryolink network, run as a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom, has over a million subscribers and runs a limited 3G data network, but keeps higher-capability data services turned off.
“It would be very easy for them to turn that on,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt and Richardson met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials during their visit, which was billed as a “private humanitarian trip,” and paid a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a memorial to the former leaders of the regime.
Critics of the visit said it could be used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime as a propaganda opportunity to build legitimacy.
The U.S. State Department had warned that the trip, which came in the wake of Pyongyang’s illegal long-range rocket launch month, was “ill advised.”
The U.S. has condemned the Dec. 12 launch, which it says was a disguised ballistic missile test in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
Richardson, who is also the former governor of New Mexico, said that during the trip he had expressed concern about ballistic missile tests.
"We strongly urged the North Koreans to proceed with a moratorium on ballistic missiles and possible nuclear test—that it was important for this step to be taking to calm tensions in the peninsula,” he said.
He said he was unable to meet Korean-American Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour agent who was detained late last year and has been charged with unspecified crimes against the state.
Authorities told him that Bae, who is being held far from Pyongyang, is in good health and his judicial proceedings will start soon, Richardson said, though he did not give details.
There was no immediate comment from North Korea about the visit by Richardson and Schmidt other than a report on the official KCNA news agency to say their delegation had left.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.