January 10, 2013

Schmidt to North Korea: It's High Time You Got Online


While these days, most of the world takes getting online for granted, and often has for an extended period of time, that's not the case everywhere. Perhaps one of the strangest cases is in North Korea, in which the neighboring country directly to the south has an incredible online infrastructure while North Korea itself has a minimal access profile. Eric Schmidt of Google recently made a highly controversial trip to North Korea in which he made the case clear to North Korea's leadership: it's well past time to embrace the Web.

Schmidt's trip was actually part of a larger delegation run by the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, and was originally intended to focus on humanitarian and diplomatic issues. But Schmidt interjected a bit of technological awareness in there as well--which has often been shown to have an impact on humanitarian and diplomatic issues--saying that North Korea risked falling even further behind the longer the country failed to focus on its communications infrastructure. Since using a computer is out of reach for many North Koreans, and those able to do so are heavily monitored, it's representing--as far as Schmidt is concerned--a major problem for the entire country.


Image via Shutterstock

While Schmidt has an undeniable point on his hands--doing business these days, especially on a global stage, requires the use of new communications technology--the delegation itself is widely regarded as a bad idea, especially by United States officials. A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, for example, referred to the delegation as not being "particularly helpful", and some North Korea experts have referred to the delegation as both naive and likely being an aid to North Korea's propaganda machine.

Timing is also an issue, with the United States among others seeking international sanctions against North Korea following its recent launch of the Unha-3 rocket. North Korea describes said launch as peaceful, yet South Korean and United States intelligence elements call the first step in creating a long-range ballistic missile that could, eventually, target the United States.

Not only is access by computer difficult in North Korea, by mobile device it's even worse. On average, only one in 24 North Korean citizens even have a mobile device in the first place, and the mobile network, run by Egyptian firm Orascom, has the potential to supply Internet access but that feature remains unavailable. Interestingly, North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un was educated in a boarding school in Switzerland, so he's already quite aware of the power and impact of technology, putting emphasis on science and technology as a path to economic development as well as putting more computerization focus on the country's industry. But hard currency is scarce in North Korea, and with ballistic missile projects going on it's hard to see where the money will come from to provide those advancements.

North Korea actually ranks as one of the world's least wired nations, so it's easy to see where there are possibilities to advance the connectivity in the country. While slim resources, and poor planning, seem to be clearly working against North Korea, a visit from a major tech figure like Schmidt might prove the kind of thing to light a metaphorical fire under the country and get the focus on internal development. Some might doubt that North Korea could ever be a technological powerhouse, but with changes in ideology and approach, the country could at least make a start.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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