After returning from a private mission to North Korea, Eric Schmidt says he sternly warned North Korean officials that their country risks falling further behind economically without a connection to the global internet, but didn't elaborate much further on the trip. Schmidt's daughter Sophie was also with the delegation, and in a lengthy Google Sites post titled "It might not get weirder than this," she describes a trip full of "highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments." Sophie Schmidt writes that the North Koreans are "hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it," and says the best description the delegation could come up with is that "it's like The Truman Show, at country scale."
"They might as well have been figurines."
Schmidt says her father invited her to accompany the private delegation, which included former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and the group's mission was originally unclear — Reuters reported that plans could have included an attempt to negotiate for the release of an imprisoned American citizen. While Schmidt's report doesn't confirm or deny that claim, it does offer a number of colorful details about her experience in the secretive nation. Some are based on facts already known; for example, an AP report described the delegation's visit to a college computer lab. But Schmidt adds color to the encounter; she depicts a creepy atmosphere at the Kim Il Sung University e-Library (or as she calls it, the "e-Potemkin Village"), with multiple floors of identically manned desks of people doing practically nothing. "A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared," she writes. "More disturbing: when our group walked in — a noisy bunch, with media in tow — not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines."
"A deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show."
Schmidt also described the bizarre state of tech in the country, with certain goods and services available "only in special tiers." She writes that at one point she attended the Korea Computer Center — what she calls "a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show" — where "their latest innovation" was demonstrated: "a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real internet." She writes that she also saw virtual-reality software, a video chat platform, "and other random stuff." Most importantly, she notes that "what's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us." (Of course, not many people will be bringing home Westinghouse's $300,000, custom-made 4K TV, either.) "They're building products for a market that doesn't exist," Schmidt writes.
Schmidt ends on a seemingly positive note, writing that the North Koreans "seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can't hope to keep it out. But we'll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take." Be sure to read the rest of Schmidt's impressions, including a great photo gallery with plenty of shots from inside Pyongyang.