Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt is working on a book about the internet’s role in shaping society. In The New Digital Age, to be released in April, Schmidt argues that internet and mobile technologies are revolutionising politics, economics and society, and have the potential to lift people out of poverty and political oppression.
His message that technology can transform countries for the better, and drum up business for Google and its subsidiaries in the process, is anathema to dictators around the world. This is why the announcement that Schmidt will visit North Korea—the world’s most closed, opaque and oppressive country—later this year seems puzzling.
Schmidt’s purposes for the visit are obvious. Less clear is Pyongyang’s motivations in presumably allowing Schmidt entry.
A traditional pillar of the strategy of the Korean Workers’ Party to remain in power is to deny its citizens access to information from the outside world, and to prevent the sharing of information domestically.
Is supreme leader Kim Jong-un unwittingly allowing forces into his country that could undermine a party that has been in power for more than six decades?
Perhaps, but under pressure from the US, Japan and South Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, it is also likely that Pyongyang will use any visit by Schmidt to lower the heat by selling its faux message of co-operation and engagement. When Schmidt visits Pyongyang, he will have done his homework. Media in North Korea is more tightly controlled than anywhere else in the world. The landscape is still dominated by state-owned and run television and radio services, broadcasting news and messages created or approved by the regime.
There are few alternatives to official messaging beyond the odd television and radio broadcasts by government-backed and private activists from America, Japan and South Korea that occasionally bypass state attempts to block all outside content.
The internet within North Korea is even more restricted. Reportedly, only several hundred thousand people in a country of 24 million, mainly elites who tend to be the strongest supporters of the regime, have access to something like what we know as the World Wide Web. The rest of the population either have no access, or else can interact only with what is best characterised as a North Korean-wide intranet with countless pages of government-generated or approved content.
Indeed, the North Korean intranet is the consummate model of what the Chinese Communist Party initially wanted to create for its own citizens.
Whereas Beijing now needs to balance the demands of economic growth and innovation with the suppression of the internet, and information generally, a stagnant North Korean economy does not present Pyongyang with the same dilemma.
Why, then, allow such a high- profile internet pioneer such as Schmidt into the country? Some are speculating that this is evidence that Kim Jong-un’s Ten Year State Strategy Plan for Economic Development, announced last January, is sincere.
On New Year’s Day, the supreme leader took the rare step of directly addressing the people to urge “a radical turn in the building of an economic giant”. Schmidt’s visit will hardly transform its ailing economy. But it could be an early indication to the outside world that North Korea wants to show a different face and seek eventual re-entry into the regional and global economy.
Such an optimistic reading is seductive but goes against current developments within the economy. True, Pyongyang has set up experimental economic zones close to its Chinese neighbours and allowed a small number of joint ventures between its state-owned and South Korean firms.
But a more significant development, which is preventing meaningful reform, is the military’s increased control over key sectors of the North Korean economy, including agriculture, mining and manufacturing. This is compelling evidence that the regime has little interest or capacity to move away from its dysfunctional and disastrous “military first” economic approach. After all, Kim Jong-Un’s rule depends on it.
Optimists should also be mindful of the recent historical cycles of Pyongyang’s diplomacy. In the past two decades, so-called soft-liners within the regime have periodically reached out to officials in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to relay the message that hard-liners in Pyongyang could be overcome if only the international community would offer North Korea face-saving concessions.
These could take the form of increased aid, dismantling sanctions, or lowering diplomatic pressure vis-a-vis the country’s military activities.
Occasionally, Pyongyang would graciously host the arrival of a high-profile American, with former president Jimmy Carter particularly coming to mind.
The carrot for the international community is always North Korea agreeing to sit sincerely at the negotiating table to talk through the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
For 15 years, North Korea has managed to coax or else extort more than $US1 billion of aid from America and $US4bn from South Korea. Through it all, “hard-liners” remain in control. In September 2011, Kim Jong-un pledged to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal “beyond imagination”. He conducted a ballistic missile test in December.
With American attitudes hardening, and newly elected conservative governments in Tokyo and Seoul again taking a dim view of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it seems so-called soft-liners are once again reaching out to the international community.
Schmidt has his own good reasons to visit the hermit kingdom. But Pyongyang may have its own less-ennobling reasons to allow the visit to occur.