SEOUL, South Korea – Google’s executive chairman is preparing to travel to one of the last frontiers of cyberspace: North Korea.
Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, sources told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The sources, two people familiar with the group’s plans, asked not to be named because the visit had not been made public.
The trip would be the first by a top executive from U.S.-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet.
North Korea is in the midst of what leader Kim Jong Un called a modern-day “industrial revolution” in a New Year’s Day speech to the nation Monday. He is pushing science and technology as a path to economic development for the impoverished country, aiming for computers in every school and digitized machinery in every factory.
However, giving citizens open access to the Internet has not been part of the regime’s strategy. While some North Koreans can access a domestic Intranet service, very few have clearance to freely surf the World Wide Web.
It was not immediately clear who Schmidt and Richardson expect to meet in North Korea, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with the United States. North Korea has almost no business with companies in the U.S., which has banned the import of North Korean-made goods.
Schmidt, however, has been a vocal advocate of providing people around the world with Internet access and technology.
As Google’s chief executive for a decade until 2011, Schmidt oversaw Google’s ascent from a small California startup focused on helping computer users search the Internet to a global technology giant making inroads into mobile phone markets as well as mapping.
Google now has offices in more than 40 countries, including all three of North Korea’s neighbors: Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticized for systematic Internet censorship.
The visit follows North Korea’s announcement that an American citizen of Korean descent has been jailed in Pyongyang on suspicion of committing “hostile” acts against the state. Conviction could draw a sentence of 10 years of hard labor under North Korea’s penal code.
Kenneth Bae, identified in North Korean state media by his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho, is the fifth American detained in North Korea in the past four years. The exact circumstances of his arrest were not clear.
Last year, a group of North Koreans paid a visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.