Private "humanitarian" visits to North Korea by well-meaning but naive high-profile westerners generally don't turn out well. The recent trip by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is a case in point. Their purpose, apparently, was to urge Pyongyang to allow more open internet access and mobile phones to benefit its poor citizens:
Richardson told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview in Pyongyang that his delegation was bringing a message that more openness would benefit North Korea. Most in the country have never logged onto the Internet, and the authoritarian government strictly limits access to the World Wide Web.
"The citizens of the DPRK (North Korea) will be better off with more cellphones and an active Internet. Those are the ... messages we've given to a variety of foreign policy officials, scientists" and government officials, Richardson said.
Also - well, why not? - ask them very nicely to put a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests. Oh yes, and bring up the case of the American citizen recently detained there on espionage charges, Kenneth Bae, and if possible secure his release. Obviously the North Koreans only behave as they do because everyone's nasty to them. Treat them with kindness and courtesy and they'll mellow under the warmth, and smiles and laughter will appear where once were frowns, and all will be well - rather like the Sunshine Policy which South Korea tried for years and years before realising that it was a complete and utter failure.
The US State Department described the trip as "unhelpful", particularly so soon after the succesful rocket launch, when the US is trying to rally support for a UN Security Council resolution. No matter; off they went. And egos were certainly flattered:
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was treated like a “rock star” on a visit to North Korea last week, the head of his delegation, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said Saturday.
Such treatment referred to the level of interest in Schmidt on the tightly-controlled visit, despite ongoing questions over the timing of the travel in the wake of Pyongyang’s Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.
“Eric Schmidt was like a rock star there, talking to people, to students to scientists, to software engineers about the importance of the Internet,” Richardson told CNN. “I think it is important that we not isolate the North Koreans.”
The former U.S. official said the “private, humanitarian” mission had three goals: to urge the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to refrain from nuclear weapons testing; to check on an American detained there; and encourage greater openness to information.
The U.S. State Department warned before the trip that it was ill-timed as Washington was pushing for international punishment for the rocket launch. Richardson said the concern was merited but argued that it was time to engage.
“I am worried that we are headed toward a confrontation with the North Koreans feeling isolated,” he said, adding that the regime may move toward diplomacy if Kim feels he “established his domestic strength” through the successful launch.
For some, however, the high visibility of the trip raised the possibility that the regime would use it as propaganda fodder.
Indeed. And so it came to pass:
The North Korean authorities are now using the recent visit of Internet search engine Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in post-“Gwangmyungsung-3” launch public propaganda lectures.
A source from the northerly city of Hyesan told Daily NK today, “There’ve been these lectures about how, with the world enthused at how we managed to conquer space under the sage leadership of the Marshal (Kim Jong Eun), even a delegation led by the head of a famous American Internet company came to pay a congratulatory visit to our country.”
“The whole world, including America, was astonished by the success of the launch of our artificial earth satellite,” the lecturer reportedly continued, going on, “The enemy, cowed by the power of our strong country, even sent a congratulatory delegation.”
That’s not all: according to the source, the visit of Schmidt, who was in North Korea as part of a delegation led by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, his advisor Tony Namkung, the head of Google Ideas Jared Cohen and Professor John Delury of Yonsei University, has featured in not only newspaper and television broadcasts but also on the so-called "3rd Broadcast," the fixed line radio system wired into the fabric of homes and public buildings across North Korea.
The successful launch was, according to the lecturer, “The General (Kim Jong Il)’s far-sighted concept, brought to glorious fruition by the Marshal.” He added that the response of the international community to the launch, especially in terms of the Schmidt visit, has been a “great victory” for North Korea, one that shows that the international community has universally accepted North Korea’s entry into space.
So well done Eric and Bill! No sign of increased internet access as yet, or of a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, but surely now it's only a matter of time.
And Kenneth Bae? Sadly they were unable to meet him, and he remains in custody.