At Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University, Eric Schmidt looks at computers
It's unclear how he got his plane ticket or who let him through customs — cash helps on both counts — but Eric Schmidt arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday morning. He's there with a "Google delegation" that includes Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen and former ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who's visited the Hermit Kingdom more than half a dozen times. It is, they say, a "humanitarian mission."
Schmidt's stayed relatively silent about the trip and his motivations (could Google possibly be looking for a foothold in the North before Zuckerberg can get there, or is this a touchdown dance after their FTC victory?) but Richardson opened up to the press recently. "This is not a Google trip, but I'm sure [Schmidt is] interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect," he said. "We'll meet with North Korean political leaders. We'll meet with North Korean economic leaders, military. We'll visit some universities. We don't control the visit. They will let us know what the schedule is when we get there." The delegation will also be meeting with a jailed American citizen, who's been there since November after he confessed to a crime. It's unclear what the crime was. Richardson added, "We’re not representing the State Department, so they shouldn’t be that nervous."
They say this isn't a diplomatic trip, but when you take a seasoned diplomat to a country and set up a bunch of meetings with government officials, it sure sounds like there's a diplomatic component to me. The State Department, meanwhile, called Schmidt's trip "ill-advised," while John McCain described the delegation as "useful idiots."
Still, the U.S. government couldn't stop Schmidt and company from making the jaunt over to Pyongyang. They flew through Beijing and took an Air China flight from there. It's unclear if they'll get a passport stamp.
The big question remains unanswered: Why is the Google delegation defying the wishes of the government and charging into meetings with the country's biggest nemesis? Because it's Google. This is what they do. Have a look at what's happened lately between Google and the government. The company's habit of dodging taxes by routing revenue through subsidiaries in tax havens has been getting an increasing amount of attention around the world. We're not talking about a few thousand bucks here and there. At Bloomberg News's latest count, Google has over $10 billion hanging out in Bermuda, ready for a rainy day.
Like Facebook and Twitter, which also employ teams of lobbyists and policy thinkers, Google and its software is already influencing diplomacy and policy in the U.S. and other countries. Thanks to recent changes in FTC policy, Facebook can now advertise to children; Twitter has agreed to censor Tweets in certain countries. Still, despite help from Hillary Clinton, it still can't manage to tell Beijing what's what: the company even just stopped its practice of telling Chinese web surfers if their searchers were being censored.
Things work a little different in the United States, the search giant just managed its way out of a two-year long Federal Trade Commission investigation into allegations of anti-competitive behavior at the company. The FTC dropped the investigation after deciding that Google's actions didn't harm consumers, but as The New York Times pointed out afterward, "many of the yardsticks the commission used to measure its outcomes were remarkably similar to Google’s own." In other words, the government doesn't decide if Google's right or wrong in its actions. Google does and then lets the government know how it is.
As characteristically brazen as Google's venture into North Korea is, it would still be nice to be able to know what Schimdt is talking to North Korean officials about. We might get the chance to find out, too, since Richardson and Schmidt are giving a press conference after they get back to China on January 10. In the meantime, welcome to the future of corporate statecraft.
Image via AP and Reuters