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Google Executive to Visit North Korea

North and South Korea
North Korea looks dark by night compared to brightly-lit South Korea on the Korean peninsula (between China on the left and Japan on the right). (Image credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive )

North Korea remains a closed society where just a handful of elites can use Google on the unrestricted Internet. But that is not stopping Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt from paying a personal visit to the secretive East Asian country.

The North Korea trip would mark a first by a top executive from Google, the world's largest Internet provider, according to the Associated Press. Schmidt's visit forms part of a private humanitarian mission headed by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.

Schmidt and Google have vocally championed the idea of Internet freedom and unrestricted access to information providing an empowering path for ordinary people to improve their lives. That view seems directly opposed to North Korea's strict control of information for the purposes of feeding its citizens state propaganda.

Most North Korean citizens have no Internet access. A small group of several hundred elite families, academics and scientists can log onto the country's highly-restricted version of the Internet, according to a BBC feature on North Korea's Internet. That network resembles more of a company intranet than the global Internet familiar to most Americans.

Unrestricted Internet access is reserved for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a handful of the elites. Even North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang has just one cybercafé. [How Kim Jong-un Won Time's 'Person of the Year' Poll]

The contrast between the Google and North Korean approaches to the Internet have led some analysts to speculate about whether the Google visit could pave the way for a gradual loosening of North Korea's control over online access to information. Victor Cha, a Korea expert and former senior Asia specialist in the administration of President George W. Bush, told AP that the Google visit might be the "first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang."

The planned visit by Google likely represents philanthropic outreach rather than an attempt to strike a business deal with North Korea, analysts said. A North Korean delegation had previously visited Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

"I think this part of Google's broader vision to bring the Internet to the world, and North Korea is the last frontier," said Peter Beck, the South Korean representative of the Asia Foundation, in Reuters interivew.

North Korea has fallen far behind South Korea in both economic development and Digital Age sophistication — South Korea's has some of the world's fastest average broadband speeds. But North Korea has still attempted to attack its southern neighbor by smuggling malware-infected video games into South Korea to launch cyberattacks.

A Western-owned company has even helped North Korea make a homegrown video game available online for curious Westerners who want to race around virtual Pyongyang. The game resembles a fairly crude version of an online Web browser game.

Ordinary North Koreans have still managed to find ways to get outside information despite their lack of Internet access. Some have managed to buy cellphones that can make calls outside North Korea. Many have accessed Hollywood films, South Korean TV dramas and Korean pop music (K-pop) through smuggled DVDs, USB sticks and mp3 players.

This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, sister site to LiveScience. You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.