Google Chairman’s Daughter Offers Behind The Scenes Trip Report

Sophie Schmidt's blog reveals latest tech developments and personal insights.
January 21st, 2013

Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s 19 year old daughter Sophie has posted a blog about her recent high-profile trip to North Korea along side her father. In it she reveals details of Schmidt’s agenda during the visit, confirms details of current conditions in Pyongyang,  reveals the inside of a new luxury hotel complex and bemoans the severe limitations the delegations were submitted to. She concludes optimistically however, that visiting North Korea is a must.

Sophie posted her impressions on a Google Sites page, sharing details of what the nine-person delegation, led by and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, saw on their visit to North Korea. On her blog she written on Saturday she explained the trip had two missions:

political (Richardson’s side) and technological (our side). Speaking as a tech person, just getting to speak to officials in the most closed country on earth about the virtues of the Internet–and having them (appear to) listen–seemed extraordinary.

Despite news exclusively broken on NK NEWS about new regulations allowing foreign tourists to carry cellphones in North Korea, Schmidt explained that “We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they’d be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.”

In fact, her description of the visit puts the brakes on some of the more generous theories of the current pace of change in North Korea, as she reports an experience of ring-fenced, staged encounters familiar to most visitors to the country:

It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments…We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans.

However, Schmidt explains that despite this, the group were granted access to look at North Korea’s national intranet, which she described as “a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.” She offers this insightful conclusion on the state of technology in North Korea at the current time:

Everything that is accessible is accessible only in special tiers.

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo’d their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.

What’s so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it’s not like they’re going to export this technology. They’re building products for a market that doesn’t exist.

Those in the know are savvier than you’d expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, “When is the next version of Android coming out?”and “Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?” Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you’re under international bank sanctions.

They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can’t hope to keep it out. Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we’ll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.

On Saturday Schmidt’s father added to her blog by posting his own Google+ piece that revealed some additional details about the trip. Schmidt mainly focused the post on his desire to see internet access expanded in North Korea,

Once the internet starts in any country, citizens in that country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do one thing: open up the Internet first. They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government of North Korea has not yet done,..It is their choice now, and in my view, it’s time for them to start, or they will remain behind.

Elsewhere on the blog, Schmidt shares personal pictures from her trip, including the inside of the luxury guesthouse in which they stayed.

The recent “Google Delegation” to North Korea, with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson drew criticism from the U.S. State Department who during their tour said “We don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful.”

Sophie’s blog includes her ‘top level take-aways’ from the trip, where she concludes:”Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange…. Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.”

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.