Pyongyang's welcome of Google goes only as far as its chairman

Donald Kirk says Eric Schmidt's North Korea visit only highlights the yawning digital divide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:50am


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If Google chairman Eric Schmidt learned anything from his visit to North Korea last week, it was that the North is falling ever further behind the rest of the world in hi-tech capabilities. The reason is that connecting more than a small sliver of the elite would undermine the absolute dictatorship that forces subservience, ignorance and hunger on a people unable to question the mystique of a dynasty that rules by fear and favours.

Like the police in South Korea who keep people from looking up Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency by posting a "warning" whenever anyone tries to click on the site, you may be sure the North Koreans ban anything distasteful from computer screens.

How far, however, can the censorship go? How long can authorities impose a total blackout on such contraband topics as the real background of the young leader, Kim Jong-un, his father, the late Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, dynasty founder Kim Il-sung?

Just because Schmidt's hosts showed no sign of following his warnings of the need to close the digital divide, it does not mean North Korean computer whizzes cannot get around restrictions. That's a danger facing a regime that's anxious to open up enough to serve its self-interest - but not at the risk of jeopardising its grip on power.

Imagine North Koreans poring over reports about the country's cruel prison system. Can they check out films, TV dramas and news? Is Gangnam Style by the South Korean sensation Psy accessible on YouTube in North Korea? Can North Korean surfers learn about such wondrous toys as smartphones and tablets? Wouldn't the authorities need to keep even the most educated and trustworthy of the elite from knowing too much about the good life they're missing?

Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, were no doubt careful not to offend their hosts with questions about the inherent conflict between the quest for openness and North Korea's policy of total suppression.

The boundaries, however, are clear. It was one thing for them to suggest that a bright child google the name of a university or city, but no one asked anyone to punch in "North Korea" and "human rights". Nor would the curious surfer discover the absurdity of the myth of Kim Jong-il's birth in a cabin on North Korea's sacred Mount Baekdu.

Somehow, somewhere, though, one has to believe that ingenious North Koreans are figuring out ways to look up such things - while hiding their searches from prying eyes. That stands to reason when you consider their skills at staging cyber attacks on South Korea and gaining access to sensitive foreign websites.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea