(SEOUL, South Korea) — North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-Un is using the visit of Google’s chairman to do the improbable — project him as a high tech leader.
The visit by Eric Schmidt, along with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, comes just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space. North Korean media has been running non-stop praise for the success of its Dec. 12 satellite launch, although some scientist claim the satellite is not operating as it should.
The next realm, analysts believe, is the telecommunications industry.
“They are trying to increase (international) standards for the economy,” said Daniel Pinkston, deputy project director of North East Asia Program. Through Schmidt’s trip they’re trying “to project the image of Kim Jong Un as a high-tech leader, like they did with the missile launch process, and fold it into their propaganda.”
To make that image stick would be an accomplishment. North Korea remains one of the last frontiers of the World Wide Web. Internet use is strictly regulated to only the upper echelons of its society, a privilege that must also be approved by the state. The number of Internet users in North Korea is estimated to be around a few thousand, out of a population of 24 million.
Nevertheless, those who watch North Korea are encouraged by Schmidt’s trip, which included a visit Tuesday to a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.
“It’s a good sign,” said Jong-woon Lee, a senior researcher at the International Cooperation for Korean Unification. “This visit seems to signify more openness to foreign companies and investments, a gesture of good will that could possibly open up North Korea more to the world.”
Pyongyang has shown slow, but steady measures to be part of the world of social media. It currently runs a YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter account under the name of “uriminzokkiri”, mostly posting news and propaganda.
At the moment, there are only two ways for North Koreans to access the Internet. One is through a German satellite that provides satellite Internet access, mostly to tourist hotels and diplomats. North Korean elites with permits use the one and only government-backed program, called the Star Joint Venture built with the help of Thailand’s telecommunications firm, Loxley Pacific Company. For regular citizens, a domestic intranet system “Kwangmyong” developed by the Korea Computer Center is offered mostly to connect institutions such as universities and cybercafés hosting websites and e-mails. The information available on Kwangmyong is strictly controlled.
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