BEIJING (AP) — Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said Thursday it's up to North Korea to shed its self-imposed isolation and allow its citizens to use the Internet and connect with the outside world, or risk remaining way behind other countries.
Schmidt was returning from a private trip to North Korea with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that was not sanctioned by the U.S. government and has been criticized for appearing to boost Pyongyang's profile after its widely condemned rocket launch put a satellite into space last month.
"As the world is becoming increasingly connected," Schmidt said, "their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically. We made that alternative very, very clear."
The nine-member delegation, which also included Jared Cohen, director of the company's Google Ideas think tank, was greeted at the Beijing airport by a throng of reporters at the end of their four-day trip.
"The government has to do something," Schmidt said. "It has to make it possible for the people to use the Internet. It is their choice now. It's in my view time for them to start, or else they will remain behind."
During the trip, Richardson said they also urged Pyongyang to halt all missile and nuclear tests, which have incurred U.N. sanctions, and sought fair treatment for an American who has been detained in North Korea.
Schmidt, CEO of the U.S.-based Internet giant until 2011, has been a vocal proponent of Internet freedom and openness around the world. He and Cohen are publishing a book in April about the power of global connectivity in transforming people's lives, policies and politics.
Cohen doesn't typically accompany Schmidt on Google-sanctioned trips, so his inclusion in the delegation may be a sign that the two men may have mainly been interested in gathering material for their book.
In Pyongyang, Schmidt's group visited a university computer lab and met with students and North Korean officials. They toured the frigid brick building in central Pyongyang that is the heart of North Korea's own computer industry, where Schmidt asked pointed questions about a new homegrown tablet computer as well as its Red Star operating system. He briefly donned a pair of 3-D goggles during the tour of the Korea Computer Center.
Many experts see the country as one of the least connected in the world, where few people have any access to computers, and even those who do are typically able to connect only to a domestic intranet that does not connect with the World Wide Web.
Global broadband Internet is available in North Korea, as well as a 3G mobile network that can't currently connect to the Internet. But few have unrestricted access, though "it would be very easy for them to turn that on," Schmidt said.
The State Department has criticized the trip as "unhelpful" at a time when the U.S. is rallying support for additional U.N. Security Council action against Pyongyang. Schmidt advised President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign and was once considered a potential candidate for a Cabinet-level appointment, though he has repeatedly said that he has no plans to leave Google for a government job.