Google in North Korea: Pyongyang kowtow or smart diplomacy?
18 Jan 2013| and

Google’s Eric Schmidt arrives in North Korea. This is the “internet” he’ll find there. Computer room at the Nampo Chollima Steelworks.

When Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson headed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) last week, they certainly turned some heads. Many viewed their trip as undercutting Western efforts to secure even stronger sanctions following the North’s ballistic missile launch last month. They also have been chided for providing Kim Jong-un an opportunity to ‘convey a sense of legitimacy and international recognition and acceptance’ to his people. With a nuclear test apparently looming not far over the horizon, then why did Schmidt and Richardson journey to the Hermit Kingdom?

Well, it’s difficult to imagine that Schmidt was there to seize on the unrealised market potential of the North. Although some might speculate that DPRK may be ready to shift its Internet approach, there’s scant evidence to back that up that claim. North Korea is far more intent on developing cyber weapons than it is on building a digital economy and providing its people with a better standard of living. Even in the absence of a strong digital backbone, DPRK has emerged as one of the top cyber warfare states (and proliferators) in the world. The simple fact is that the DPRK doesn’t need Google to continue to advance its space, cyber, missile, nuclear, and conventional weapons programs. Until the regime prioritises its general economy alongside its military industrial complex, an open Internet policy is more of a liability than an asset.

While there have been glimmers of hope that Kim Jong-un might depart from his father’s isolationist tendencies, ‘experience tells us to be skeptical’, as Evans J.R. Revere so eloquently puts it. The problem is that the DPRK seems very comfortable serving as a case study for the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though new power dynamics appear to be at play within the Kim Jong-un regime, the ways in which his government leverages international insecurity to achieve political objectives—through missile launches, arms proliferation, and nuclear tests—continue to fit the status quo pattern of behaviour set by his father, Kim Jong-Il. So far, we’ve witnessed only minor modifications.

Again, this begs the question: what was the reason for the visit? From the US perspective, part of the reason appears obvious to most seasoned Korean peninsula watchers: to secure the release of an American detainee, Kenneth Bae, arrested only a few months earlier while escorting tourists that the DPRK claims were in possession of banned electronic devices. This explanation makes sense and fits in with the traditional narrative. One only needs to look back to 2009 when Kim Jong-Il used another set of detainees to force a visit by former president Clinton. In that case, the prizes were two American journalists, Euna Lee and Lora Ling, who had been caught illegally entering the North without a visa. While the details of Bae’s case differ, his detention nevertheless illustrates a similar use of detention to elicit a high-level ‘private humanitarian’ mission response.

From this perspective, one can understand why the Obama Administration and/or other power brokers concluded that the visit, which the US Government could (and did) publicly disavow, was a necessary price to pay for Bae’s freedom. Even though the visit rewarded North Korea for using Bae as a pawn in its strategic game of chess with the United States, it was in support of an important humanitarian objective. Did this set a bad precedent for King Jong-un? Of course! But, if history repeats itself, Bae should be released sometime later this year.

But this raises an important follow-on question: who is really in the driver’s seat in US–DPRK relations? If the DPRK can effectively coerce the United States so easily, what hope is there that the US can stop North Korea from further developing its nuclear and cyber programs? This point continues to divide policy experts in Washington DC. The Obama Administration has made it clear that they’re ‘not afraid of losing the PR war to dictators’. Through this lens, the positive coverage and increased prestige that DPRK might have gained from the ‘Google delegation’ visit probably doesn’t overly concern the Administration. Others, particularly conservatives like John Bolton, will certainly disagree. They may even see the Administration’s ‘concession’ as a tragic form of nuclear accommodation.

Either way, it’s naïve to think that the visit really came down to just a trade-off between a detainee and some small recognition of North Korean power and prestige. The trip also provided an excellent opportunity for Kim Jong-un to be heard. If the DPRK wants a return to the bargaining table, then perhaps this is their way to make that known. Since the US probably shares that desire on many levels, the detainee episode might just serve as a bizarre trigger for such engagement. This is true even if the DPRK only wants to signal to the US that they plan to go ahead with a nuclear test.

So, in the words of Arizona Senator John McCain, Schmidt and Richardson might have played the role of ‘useful idiots’ but they were probably useful nonetheless. If the DPRK is moving toward another nuclear test, as some have suggested, then the region is facing yet another escalation thanks to the North’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy. Getting the DPRK back to the table before they cross the line and conduct the test probably is, at least in the minds of many in the Obama Administration, therefore worth the cost of the detainee drama.

The question now is what if this approach fails. For example, what if Bae is not released and DPRK either avoids harsh sanctions or conducts another nuclear test? This scenario probably concerns the Obama Administration the most now that they have played their hand. But the Google delegation provides some recourse.

The visit may have helped raise the profile of what information and communication technology assets the country does possess. The Samjiyon tablet computers, Red Star operating system, and the Kim Il Sung University may also have gotten free advertisement in the press like never before. But the trip also provided an opportunity for Schmidt, who is rumored to be in consideration for a cabinet position during Obama’s second term, and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen a rare real-world opportunity to engage the Kim Jun-un regime and the country’s technology brain trust.

If Schmidt and Cohen now come out and hammer North Korea on Internet Freedom, cyber security, and general economic backwardness, they can do so from experience, increasing their persuasiveness with both foreign and domestic audiences. They might also have gleaned some valuable new insights into how to advance US national security objectives, such as the US State Department’s nascent plans to utilise data collected by online netizens to cue America’s national technical means for surveillance.

In the final analysis, so far Kim Jong-un certainly gained the most from the Google delegation visit. But, in the long-term, it remains unclear who the episode most advantaged. With China increasingly concerned about being boxed in on its Southwest frontier with Myanmar, rising maritime tensions between China–Japan and China–ASEAN, and a general unease with the strengthening of US relationships in the Asia–Pacific, it’s very possible that the Obama Administration will find it more difficult to obtain China’s support on North Korean proliferation during his second term in office. If this is the new calculation, the US might be willing to wager more to court North Korea in the year ahead, hoping that Kim Jong-un follows Myanmar’s lead. While this might ultimately prove to be wishful thinking, one could argue that it is worth the risk when considering the perceived lack of alternatives.

Eddie Walsh is the director of the Emerging Technologies and High-end Threats Project and Mark Jansson is the special projects director, both are at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joseph A Ferris III.