Google Bamboozled by North Korea?

by CLAUDIA ROSETT January 11, 2013

As if there isn't enough trouble in the world, the executive chairman of Google Inc., Eric Schmidt, has taken it into his head to visit North Korea. Schmidt is touring the world's leading totalitarian state as a member of a private group led by a former U.S. congressman, cabinet secretary, United Nations ambassador and New Mexico governor rolled into one, Bill Richardson - whose previous trips to North Korea have served mainly to dignify the Pyongyang regime.

Richardson's current roadshow, with Google's Schmidt in tow, seems to have generated some excitement at North Korea's state propaganda organ, the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA. KCNA has revamped its web site, including a new gmail contact address (though the address apparently doesn't work) and more colorful variations on the same old propaganda, including a special section on North Korea's recent "Successful Satellite Launch." The site also features such classics as an account of the launch in Ecuador of the works of third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, glorifying the revolutionary accomplishments of his late father, tyrant Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, the Stalin-installed founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung. On this same retooled KCNA web site, the private visit led by Richardson is heralded as "Delegation of Google Corp. of U.S. Arrives."

Schmidt has been secretive about what exactly he hopes to accomplish on this trip. Richardson, who wants to meet with an American that North Korea, as part of its chronic shakedown racket, is now holding hostage in its prison system, has hinted to the press that Schmidt is tagging along to North Korea because he is "interested in some of the economic issues there, and the social media aspect."

If anything here sounds like the beginning of some glorious new era in which North Korea is about to throw open its digital gates to the world wide web, and invite the starving inmates of Kim's gulag to post their personal opinions on Facebook, think again. North Korea's regime loves technology - but on its own terms, for carefully restricted use, for specially selected purposes, which boil down to keeping the Kim regime in power. North Korean officials are expert at hornswoggling American dreamers who arrive in Pyongyang hoping to promote some peace-loving bargain, from former president Jimmy Carter in 1994, to the New York Philharmonic, which, between North Korea's 2006 and 2009  nuclear tests, serenaded the Pyongyang elite in 2008.

I don't question that Google's Schmidt means well. But if he wants to better acquaint himself with North Korea's plans for social media, then North Korea is probably not the best place to be asking questions. There is more illuminating information to be gleaned from such items as news reports (easily found on google) on North Korea's cyber attacks on South Korean and U.S. web sites - including attacks on U.S.  government sites. Or from testimony of experts such as the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General James Thurman, who testified just last year to the House Armed Services Committee, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, that "North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber infiltration and cyber attacks."

Or, consider the congressional testimony last march of North Korea expert Col. David Maxwell (Ret.), of Georgetown University, who explained, based on observations of North Korea's current behavior, that if North Korea attacks South Korea, the North can be expected to make "extensive use of cyber capabilities,"  not only against South Korea, but "globally targeted." That would likely include not only cyber attacks on South Korean military networks, but an exploitation of "the full range of cyber capabilities to include social media to support their propaganda efforts." Maxwell elaborated: "They will not only introduce false information (to include photos and video) to the internet, they will provide information to international news organizations to affect public opinion in [South Korea] and around the world."

Such are the ways of the North Korean regime now hosting Google's Schmidt, who reportedly wants to learn about North Korea's social media. The real issue here is, what are North Korea's rulers hoping to gain from Google? If Schmidt really wants to test their intentions firsthand, he could always propose offering unfettered internet and gmail access to the political prisoners of North Korea's Stalinesque gulag - and see how that idea plays in today's technology loving Pyongyang. Though, in the unlikely event he tries that, he'd better be ready to find himself on the receiving end of Richardson's next trip to try to ransom yet another American held hostage by the shakedown experts of North Korea.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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