With Eric Schimdt’s visit to Pyongyang making headlines across the world, many writers have been wondering why Google’s executive chairman would ever want to visit the DPRK. But I believe there are other valid questions to be asked. Why shouldn’t he go? And what could this trip mean for North Koreans? Also, shouldn’t we use this occasion to ask ourselves where the DPRK actually stands in terms of information and communication technology (ICT), and think about what Schmidt might expect to see during his stay?
So far there have been few clues as to what is really behind Schmidt’s trip. But from photos of his arrival, it is now evident that his entourage was joined from China by James Kim, the founder and president of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Because of this, a visit to this unique international campus in the heart of Pyongyang is likely to be on high on the delegation’s tour program, just as well as visits to Kim Il Sung University (this happened today) and the e-Library of Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology.
In understanding motivations for Schmidt’s trip, it seems to me that educational value, rather than mere curiosity, is a plausible answer. That’s because Google is a synonym of knowledge itself, something the DPRK is in desperate need of.
Because institutions like PUST are among the few places where a handful of North Koreans can access the Internet and receive computer training that will help them in the 21st century, it would seem that Schmidt is not in Pyongyang for sightseeing, but rather there to size the DPRK’s potential for development. After all, a DPRK delegation visited Google’s Headquarters in 2011, so Schmidt’s visit may be viewed in one way as reciprocity.
Whether Schmidt’s visit will actually translate into concrete help towards North Korea’s IT sector is unknown at the moment. However, giving younger North Koreans the opportunity to learn more about the world is something that should be encouraged, no matter how small the opening.
The trip promises to be fascinating for Schmidt and one wonders what does it must feel like for him to be in a country where people have no idea of the vast amount of information that can be accessed through search engines, and where the Google name carries little, if any value. So while it was today reported that students at Kim Il Sung University did search online for information in front of Mr. Schmidt using Google, it was probably a demonstration set up to impress him.Unfortunately, the amount and variety of information available on the DPRK intranet is in fact are quite limited.
Another important aspect relates to what the DPRK internet looks like and where the country stands in terms of IT. A few considerations: aside from KCNA and Rodong Sinmun, North Korea does have some interesting websites, like local equivalents of South Korean portals Naver and Daum, and even some rudimentary online mapping of downtown Pyongyang. Nothing to compare with Google of course, but it’s something.
A quick tour of the North Korean website landscape reveals that just as it has done with many other innovations, the DPRK rushed into the internet world haphazardly bringing along a number of unresolved issues. Most sites made in and by North Korea have an average lifespan of just a few years, with domain names and host locations changing frequently. Rather similar to the DPRK’s dilly-dally approach to economic reforms, these sites appear and disappear with little explanation. Also, the majority of them are not very user-friendly, and all are quite slow in terms of downloads or streaming. However, despite all these undeniable problems, North Korea has taken a few significant steps towards technological improvement.
Considering their limited opportunities for appropriate training, DPRK software and IT experts are deemed to be quite good. I believe that Mr. Schmidt is not going to be overly impressed, but he could still find all this interesting. A few years ago, apparently upon direct request of Kim Jong Il, North Korea developed its own operating system, called Red Star, derived from the open source Linux system. Red Star is currently available online for free. Its features and capacity are limited, but it does contain all the essential elements of a functioning Linux distribution.
North Korea is also home to a number of skilled programmers and hackers, as Seoul has come to learn on more then one occasion. In addition, the DPRK has recently (and surprisingly) become a preferred outsourcing hub for a number of IT firms, as explained by dutch business and IT expert Paul Tija, who currently runs an IT joint-venture within the DPRK.
And if that wasn’t enough, North Korea still holds some of the world’s largest reserves of rare earths, elements that are essential for the production of hi-tech electronics (computers, phones, etc), turbines, pipes, conductors, and a number of other industrial products. Indeed, the value of North Korea’s mineral resources is estimated to be about 140 times its current GDP (3).
With Google now owning Motorola and having plans for many new devices in the making, testing the waters of a relation with North Korea might be more alluring for the company’s CEO than we might have initially though. After all, it’s a country with abundant resources, people hungry for knowledge, some of the cheapest labor in the world, and an impressive understanding of computing. Whether made in North Korea mobile phones appear in the international market or Google develops a Juche 2.0 application for North Korean consumers remains to be seen, but this author believes there is more potential to the DPRK than most people believe – and Google didn’t become the giant that it is today by sticking to the obvious.
1Dr. Kim is visible in the video while he shows the way to Schmidt after getting off the airport bus. The fact has been also reported on Yonhap News.
2North Korea did join the Internet just a few years ago, and, for all it self-imposed isolation, it has seen a rising level of digitalization in society, economy and even politics. Beneath the surface though, differences with the outside world (South Korea in primis) are still striking. As of 2012, the South was home to some 300,000 Internet hosts, while the DPRK had just 7. An immense disproportion, echoing the distance in economic terms and all other aspects of modernization between the two Korean states. Infrastructure is also lacking: cables and communication lines are scarce, unevenly distributed between Pyongyang and the provinces, just as everything else in North Korea, and the whole network lies in desperate need of repair. In the same fashion, access to computer education is restricted to a few areas in Pyongyang (strictly under government surveillance), namely universities and government sites.