US frowns on Eric Schmidt's North Korea trip

The timing is not particularly helpful, said a State Department spokeswoman

The U.S. Department of State has described the timing of a proposed visit by Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt and others to North Korea as not "particularly helpful" in view of the Asian country's recent launch of a long-range rocket.

A South Korean government official confirmed on Thursday a news report that Schmidt was traveling to North Korea on a personal visit. He is expected to be joined by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and his advisor Tony Namkung, according to the reports. Google declined to comment on the personal travel of its executives.

Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a briefing on Thursday that Schmidt and Richardson are private citizens, traveling in an unofficial capacity.

"They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions," she said according to a transcript of the briefing on the department's website.

Even though Google has offices in more than 40 countries, including in North Korea's surrounding neighbors--Russia, South Korea, and China--the prospects for a business deal for Google are remote if only because North Korea is probably the most tightly controlled country in terms of Internet usage, wrote Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in a posting on the CSIS website. Only about 4,000 North Koreans have access to the web and under very tightly monitored conditions, he said.

If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development, Cha added.

Nuland said that Google, like all U.S. companies, is subject to restrictions under U.S. law. North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S. and is subject to U.S. sanctions on a number of fronts. The December launch of the rocket to put a satellite into orbit was criticized as it is seen as giving North Korea long-range missile capability for military purposes.

The Department of State said it was reacting to news reports of Schmidt's visit and did not comment on any official contact with the Google executive. "I'm not going to get into any further details with regard to our contact except to say that they are well aware of the U.S. Government's view on this," Nuland said. It was speculated earlier that the goal of the trip may be to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen the North Korean government recently said it is holding in custody. But Nuland said the U.S. was in contact with North Korea about Bae through the Embassy of Sweden, which is its "protecting power" in Pyongyang.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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