Googling North Korea: Weighing Notions of Technocratic Boost

By | January 08, 2013 | No Comments

Google CEO, Eric Schmidt during lunch at a conference just prior to giving keynote speech, “Freedom from Fear at Google Ideas Illicit Networks Conference in August 2012.  He is with one of ten former North Koreans who escaped from North Korea. via Jieun Baek's blog, "Inalienable"

Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt just prior to delivering the keynote speech entitled “Freedom from Fear” at the Google Ideas Illicit Networks Conference in July 2012. Schmidt is pictured with one of ten defectors who escaped from North Korea, were living in the Republic of Korea, and were flown to the States for the Google event. Image via Jieun Baek’s blog “Inalienable.”

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An American entrepreneur arrives at the doorstep of a system that clearly sees digitization as a tool of social control.  North Korea, as a wise man once howled from the back of a long socialist queue, is “hell bent on controlling the market and its digital trappings.” So what is Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt doing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Firewall? And is it really obligatory for us to cheer him on like a bunch of digital Jacobins, positing the man as a paladin, “a champion of connectivity in the world’s most reclusive nation”? Perhaps North Korea is just looking for alternatives to its uncompetitive contract with the Egyptian communications firm Orascom, or, as Barbara Demick mused, seeking something interesting for Kim Jong-un to do on his birthday. Or perhaps policy is the point after all: the North Koreans have long sought the stripping away of draconian South Korean restrictions on North Korean content, and Schmidt would surely lend a sympathetic ear to the broad digital front in this suppressive conflict.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese-language press, the arrival of Eric Schmidt in East Asia is to be discussed lightly, if at all: Chinese journalists and netizens haven’t been this inflamed with anti-censorship emotion since, well, before the advent of the internet. Evoked on the streets of Guangzhou yesterday were two Chinese democracy movements (in 1979 and 1989, and their many forerunners) that did things the old-fashioned way, taking actions which weren’t live-tweeted at all, but that bristled with poetry, the cry of speech and song, the crinkling of paper and the swishing of the ink brush. A revolutionary movement without social media? Awfully bruising to the Menlo Park ego and its electronic tethers. Perhaps, since meticulous public documentation of social circles is damn near obligatory in the civilized world, it is Schmidt who should be lobbying the North Koreans to pressure their Chinese “friends” (status: it’s complicated) to finally leave Google alone and allow foreign journalists and businesspersons in Beijing the same access to Twitter and Facebook as they have today from high-rise hotels (and a few embassies, but not the Chinese!) in Pyongyang. 

And let us not fail to mention the hostage, Kenneth Bae, for whom digital storage might have been his undoing. Note to future American tourists: Leave all your digital booty at the hostel in Beijing, stick to a notebook for once, and call the Swedish Embassy in Seoul before you go. But this is a topic better left alone: the last time Bill Richardson brought a prisoner released from North Korea back home to the Puget Sound, the young man (who was once an Icarus of the water, a drunken Yalu-swimmer) ended up killing himself with a handgun in a hotel room in Tacoma, Washington. How sad that he did not have the joy of writing an Oprah-approved memoir about his arrest and detention experience along with a famous sister who once visited the evil country.  How tragic that Evan Hunziker ended his life in the pre-Facebook era. In other words, there is more agony here than entertainment, and even a deux ex machina may not pixel over the welts, the destruction that may never be documented. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief 

Googling North Korea: Technocratic Boost or Humanitarian Boondoggle? 

by Roger Cavazos

As the present essay is being written, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt , his daughter, Jared Cohen, another Google executive, and Bill Richardson ( a former Secretary of Energy, US Ambassador to the United Nations and Democratic Governor of New Mexico) and a couple of others, have already touched down at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang after winging their way to North Korea on a private, humanitarian visit.

What will they discuss on this private, humanitarian visit?  And just why would North Korea allow Schmidt to visit? North Korea is a country hell-bent on controlling any and all information, while Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of the company dedicated to bringing information to everyone. Schmidt ought to represent an incarnated antithesis to North Korea’s brand of information control.

Let’s back up a short bit and recollect how this whole improbable chain of events began.  Kenneth Bae (Bae Jun-ho),  a U.S. Citizen, was arrested while leading a tour in Rason, North Korea back in November of 2012.  North Korea has arrested five American citizens in North Korea over the past four years.  Usually an ex-President has had to schlep it to North Korea, kiss a North Korean ring and solemnly swear that whoever had transgressed was truly sorry and wouldn’t do it again. In the meantime, the reins have been taken in North Korea by a young leader whose self-aggrandizing propaganda has, from the faceless get-go in 2009, promised an intensification of technological prowess.

Messieurs Richardson and Schmidt likely have three topics they plan to raise.

1. They are explicitly going to North Korea to discuss Kenneth Bae and get him released or set the conditions for his release.  Richardson is a known quantity and trusted interlocutor from the North Korean viewpoint.

2. They will also discuss economic issues.  Schmidt has been interested in North Korea for some time and gave the keynote speech in July 2012 at the Google-run INFO (lllicit Networks, Forces in Opposition)conference  where 10 defectors from North Korea were invited.

3. The third topic will likely be North Korea in general terms.

So why would North Korea invite someone who is dialectically opposed to everything  in North Korea’s cherished “fog-ocracy“?  Why would they invite an American and not, for instance, the chairman of China’s Baidu search engine?

North Korea has quite the international rap sheet.  Inviting someone like Eric Schmidt buys North Korea an extremely important international tabula rasa and some time to figure out just how they’re going to implement the vision Kim Jong-un‘s offered on January 1st without telling the emperor that he really laid out hallucinations disconnected from objective reality.

Ironically, the second reason North Korea may have allowed a representative of a company dedicated to serving individuals is to better organize the mountain of data that North Korea will have to accumulate to better understand exactly what the state of their economy is.  North Korea likely doesn’t trust their own people to tell them the truth.  But an outsider has fewer reasons to resort to Stakhanovite exhortations or simply saying that this work unit or that work unit produced seven times their quota and only used half of their allotted energy.  If North Korea is genuinely interested in finding out the true state of their moribund economy, then this is a positive (albeit small) step toward fixing it.

In the end, this does look like a classic humanitarian visit,but there has to be enough of an interest or pay off for all sides to want to play this hand of high stakes poker.  Schmidt and Richardson appear to be playing for a fellow citizen while North Korea is playing for some time and some international goodwill.  After Kim Jong-un’s relatively mild New Year’s overtures, the Schmidt-Richardson visit is just the kind of low cost, reversible positive response that can keep an almost non-existent U.S.-North Korean relationship from degrading even further.  However, as always seems to be the case, the people of North Korea are less than afterthoughts, their plight unchanged; even a plaintive sigh from the average North Korean has baleful import.

No Comments

  1. the author seems to have a negative pov in this matter .. why ?

  2. Hi Gregory – first, thank you for engaging on the topic and getting involved. Your question gets at being and nothingness and likely reflected a larger number of people who had a similar question.

    I was trying to be (mostly) objective, but am actually more exasperated than any thing else.

    First, the positives:
    –no one’s shooting anyone else or launching predator drones or anything kinetic (The Ivan Denisovich, just be glad to be alive);
    –The U.S. proves it will look carefully after the welfare of one citizen. Google Executive Chairman – one person – is worth about two months of North Korea’s entire annual GDP. Yet he chose to take about a week out of his time to go there. That Schmidt and Richardson are willing to go as private citizens to retrieve the one lost sheep says a great deal about values.
    –In order to prepare for meeting with Schmidt, Kim will have to expose probably a couple of hundred people to values, technologies and concepts that are anathema to North Korea. I sense their cognitive dissonance from here.
    –Kim will have to behave in the near term (probably days, maybe weeks) in order to not embarrass his guest. Although, North Korea has embarrassed the Chinese in shorter order than that.

    So why the exasperation? I always think more should be done and can be done, but the political will doesn’t exist. Asia is increasingly the power and economic center of the world; and where we need to focus our capital (human and monetary).

    It’s amazing that a country of 24 millions can cause such international paroxysms.

    I hope that answers your question.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter.

  3. See that title? “Technocratic boost or humanitarian boondoggle”… and why doesn’t the author know the answer? That’s right, the fog. Another big score for the Kims. Not saying Schmidt shouldn’t go, but people have to remain cognisant that this is how North Korea rolls~ P.S. “Fogocracy”? Nice.

  4. Hi Roger, thankyou for the article.
    This is one of the first I have read which proposes reasonable thinking behind the Google visit. It seems to me that the young Kim will have a real struggle to move forward any agenda that engages with or allows NK citizens to engage with each other, and yet, from his time spent abroad, he must surely know that his best assets are his people and the means to educate them.
    So is this visit purely to free the arrested American or is there a real sense that the new regime may actually have a (comparatively) progressive plan for the country?
    I would like to think the latter, but history suggests the former to be more likely!
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Gregory Lent has a habit of asking reasonable, productive questions and I’m very glad to read Roger’s answer.

    I didn’t know, though I should have suspected, that Cavazos was a Solzhenyitsyn fan: One Day in the Life Ivan Denisovich being a clever gulag reference. _Ivan Denisovich_ is to _The Gulag Archipelago_ as _The Prince_ is to Machiavelli’s _Discourses on Titus Livy_. I’m not sure if any of the four books give us more purview into the “fogocracy” (which I think is more activist and gives more agency to the North Koreans than Christopher Hitchens’ “thanatocracy”), but they are good books. Thanks Roger.

  6. Hi Neale – History (and your hunches) are more likely to be correct. As you point out, reconciling internal contradictions is going to be a tough job. And even tougher as a 30 year old.

    Dipping into the next comment, since I’m coming into this a little late,
    We don’t know for sure what Kim’s going to do. Most in DPRK don’t know what Kim’s going to do, but a “fogocracy” is semi-penetrable when viewed through the “wavelengths” of charisma and 10 principles.

    A complete “thanatrocacy” is as absolutely impenetrable as death. Only some modified version of it in which some living being “interprets” wishes of those no longer bound by this earth has any hope of change.

    Not that Kim’s ever asked Sino-NK for advice. He might have lost our card. It was a wild night… We’ll have to send someone WITH NOT A SINGLE ELECTRONIC DEVICE ON THEM to North Korea.

    Any other aspects you’d like to covered or other thoughts on relations between the two uneasy allies?

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