American Delegation Arrives in North Korea on Controversial Private Trip

By: New York Times Email
By: New York Times Email

SEOUL, South Korea — Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, led a private delegation including Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, to North Korea on Monday, a controversial trip to a country that is among the most hostile to the Internet.

Mr. Richardson, who has visited North Korea several times, called his four-day trip a private humanitarian mission and said he would try to meet with Kenneth Bae, a South Korea-born American citizen who was arrested on charges of “hostile acts” against North Korea after entering the country as a tourist in early November.

“I heard from his son who lives in Washington State, who asked me to bring him back,” Mr. Richardson said in Beijing before boarding a plane bound for Pyongyang. “I doubt we can do it on this trip.”

In a one-sentence dispatch, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency confirmed the American group’s arrival in Pyongyang, calling it “a Google delegation.”

Mr. Richardson said his delegation planned to meet with North Korean political, economic and military leaders and visit universities.

Mr. Schmidt and Google have kept quiet about why Mr. Schmidt joined the trip, which the State Department called unhelpful. Mr. Richardson said Monday that Mr. Schmidt was “interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect,” but did not elaborate. Mr. Schmidt is a staunch proponent of Internet connectivity and openness..

Except for a tiny portion of its elite, North Korea’s population is blocked from the Internet. Under its new leader, Kim Jong-un, the country has emphasized science and technology but has also vowed to intensify its war against the infiltration of outside information in the isolated country, which it sees as a potential threat to its totalitarian grip on power.

Although it is engaged in a standoff with the United States over its nuclear weapons and missile programs and habitually criticizes American foreign policy as “imperial,” North Korea welcomes high-profile American visits to Pyongyang, billing them as signs of respect for its leadership. It runs a special museum for gifts that foreign dignitaries have brought for its leaders.

Washington has never established diplomatic ties with North Korea, and the two countries remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

But Mr. Richardson’s trip comes at a particularly delicate time for Washington. In the past weeks, it has been trying to muster international support to penalize North Korea for its launching last month of a long-range rocket, which the United States condemned as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions banning the country from testing intercontinental ballistic missile technology.

North Korea has often required visits by high-profile Americans like former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton before releasing American citizens held there on criminal charges. Mr. Richardson, who is also a former ambassador to the United Nations, traveled to Pyongyang in 1996 to negotiate the release of Evan Hunziker, who was held for three months on charges of spying after swimming across the river border between China and North Korea.

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