BEIJING — Could Google drag North Korea kicking and screaming into the 21st century?
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of the world's most popular search engine, urged the world's most Internet-shy nation Thursday to open up or risk falling further behind the developed world.
"As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically," Schmidt told reporters at Beijing airport while en route home from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "It's time for them to start or they will remain behind."
Schmidt's four-day trip to Pyongyang, as part of a private mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, drew criticism and skepticism. The State Department loudly voiced its disapproval of any outreach to a country that last month shot off a long-range missile in defiance of international warnings.
One stated goal of the trip — to secure the release of an imprisoned American, Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator — did not produce much in the way of tangible results. The delegation was not permitted to visit him, although Richardson said Thursday they were informed he was in good health and had managed to pass on a letter from his son.
Although now under the leadership of the world's youngest head of state, Kim Jong Un, who turned 30 this week, North Korea lags far behind in connectivity. Unlike tech-savvy South Korea, one of the world's most wired nations, North Korea has made itself a virtual black hole in the Internet as part of its overall rejection of foreign influences.
North Korea experts say the obstacles to introducing the Internet are more political than technological.
The North Korean regime, to perpetuate its own existence, needs to prevent its population from discovering how much poorer they are than their neighbors.