Using the internet is a privilege only a very few in North Korea enjoy, where the authoritarian government imposes strict limits on access to the world wide web.
Google’s Eric Schmidt got a first look at North Korea’s limited internet usage yesterday when he visited a computer lab at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. Other members of the delegation include Mr Schmidt’s daughter, Sophie, Jared Cohen, director of the Google Ideas think-tank, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has long had an interest in foreign affairs.
Mr Schmidt – the highest-profile American business executive to visit North Korea since leader Kim Jong-un took power a year ago – has not spoken publicly about the reasons behind the journey to North Korea.
Mr Richardson has called the trip a “private, humanitarian” mission, despite the US government voicing opposition to it. North Korea is holding a US citizen accused by Pyongyang of committing “hostile” acts against the state, charges that could carry a jail term of ten years or more. Mr Richardson said he would speak to North Korean officials about Kenneth Bae’s case and try to visit him.
Mr Schmidt and Mr Cohen chatted with students working on computers at an “e-library” at the university. One showed Mr Schmidt how he accesses reading materials online on a computer with a red tag denoting it as a gift from Kim Jong-il.
Mr Cohen asked a student how he searches for information online – the student clicked on Google. “That’s where I work!” Mr Cohen said, then asked to type in his own search: “New York City”. Mr Cohen clicked on a Wikipedia page for the city, pointed at a photo and told the student: “That’s where I live.”
Kim Su Hyang, a librarian, said students have had internet access since the computer lab opened in April 2010. But while students at two other institutions also have monitored internet access, most North Koreans have never surfed the web.
Computers at Pyongyang’s main library are linked to a domestic intranet service that allows them only to read state-run media online and access reading materials compiled by North Korean officials. Those with computers at home can also sign up for the intranet service, but access to the world wide web is rare and is often limited to those with special clearance.
At Kim Chaek University, instructors and students wishing to use the internet must register first for permission and submit an application with their requests for research online, Ryu Sun Ryol, head of the e-library, said. But he said it is only a matter of time before internet use becomes widespread.
“We will start having access to the internet soon,” he said in an interview last month. He said North Korea is in the midst of a push to expand computer use in every classroom and workplace.
Mr Schmidt has spoken frequently about the importance of providing people around the world with internet access and technology.
Using science and technology to build North Korea’s beleaguered economy was the highlight of a New Year’s Day speech by leader Kim Jong-un.