News Column

Google's North Korea Visit Draws Rebuke from US State Dept.

Jan 8 2013

Oren Dorell

A visit to North Korea by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt could harm U.S. efforts to sanction the dictatorship for refusing to curb its nuclear program and missile production, Korea experts say.

The U.S. State Department complained Monday about the visit by Richardson and Schmidt while the United States is trying to persuade the United Nations to further sanction North Korea. "We think the timing is ill-advised," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

North Korea and its allies in China will use the visit to convey "an image of openness and receptivity to the outside," said Evans Revere, the State Department's deputy chief negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

Richardson described the visit as "a private humanitarian mission." He said he hoped to meet with U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who was born in South Korea and was arrested in North Korea during a tourist visit in November. Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has traveled to North Korea at least twice before to seek the release of American detainees.

Schmidt heads one of the world's richest companies, and Google ranks 73 on Forbes' list of 500 top companies. He is part of a delegation that will spend four days in the nation, but he has yet to say what he is doing there or whom he will meet. He characterizes himself as an advocate for the freedom of information worldwide. He is traveling with Jared Cohen, head of Google Ideas, the company's think-tank, with whom Schmidt is writing a book about how the Internet is changing the world.

The Internet is banned in North Korea. The country has no independent media, popular elections do not exist, and the government is among the most repressive in the world.

The visit comes in the wake of a series of hostile North Korean actions and threats toward the United States and its allies, among them an attack in 2010 on a South Korean warship and an artillery bombardment on the South's Yeonpyeong Island that killed four people the same year. In December, the North defied warnings from the United States and other nations and launched an alleged weather satellite that the United States suspects was a test for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. shores. The North has refused to abide by international treaties and open up its nuclear facilities to inspection.

The North Koreans have launched a campaign of more friendly signals over the past few weeks toward South Korea, Japan and the United States, which have given assistance to North Korea when it agreed to negotiate with them. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day speech included statements on improving the North's economy and reunification with the South.

Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's Korea branch who is at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says China is likely to seize on the visit as an argument against new Security Council sanctions. "China would say North Korea is showing it's more open, so it would be counterproductive to put penalties on them when they're showing they're turning over a new leaf," Klingner said.

No real evidence exists that North Korea is reforming, he and Revere said. For the world's most reclusive regime to open up to Google "would go against 60 years of history in North Korea," Klingner said.

Contributing: Roger Yu


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