Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 06:31 AM
BEIJING — Could Google drag North Korea kicking and screaming into the 21st century?
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of the world’s most popular search engine, urged the world’s most Internet-shy nation Thursday to open up or risk falling further behind the developed world.
“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically,” Schmidt told reporters at Beijing airport while en route home from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “It’s time for them to start or they will remain behind.”
Schmidt’s four-day trip to Pyongyang, as part of a private mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, drew criticism and skepticism. The State Department loudly voiced its disapproval of any outreach to a county that last month shot off a long-range missile in defiance of international warnings.
One stated goal of the trip — to secure the release of an imprisoned American, Kenneth Bae, a tour operator — did not produce much. The delegation was not permitted to visit Bae, 44, a Seattle-area resident, although Richardson said Thursday they were informed he was in good health and he was allowed to pass on a letter to Bae from his son.
Unlike tech-savvy South Korea, one of the world’s most wired nations, North Korea has made itself a virtual black hole in the Internet as part of its overall rejection of foreign influences.
Foreign television, books, magazines, music and movies are for the most part illegal. Less than half of the nation’s 24 million people have telephones at home, and those who do are barred from calling overseas.
Schmidt and Richardson visited a library at the elite Kim Il Sung University, named for the reclusive state’s late founder and the current leader’s grandfather, and chatted with students who had limited Internet access and were searching in Cornell University’s library online.
“People were not able to use the Internet without somebody else watching them, it appeared,” Schmidt said. He noted that North Korea’s cellphones, introduced about four years ago, can’t access the Internet but that technological hurdles were not insurmountable.
“It would be very easy for them to turn that on,” Schmidt said.
North Korea experts say the obstacles to introducing the Internet are more political than technological.
The Association Press
Google CEO Eric Schmidt, right, tries on 3-D glasses during a tour of the Korean Computer Center in Pyongyang, North Korea.