Former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, and Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, recently made a “fact finding” trip to North Korea, ostensibly to seek out investment opportunities and educate the Norks as to the benefits of the internet. Schmidt’s 19 year-old daughter, Sophie, accompanied her father and made this report about what she saw.
Bill Richardson, former Governor, US Ambassador to the UN and backchannel freelance diplomat extraordinaire, was planning his 8th trip to Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. He invited my father Eric, who invited me.
Two sets of goals for the trip: political (Richardson’s side) and technological (our side). Speaking as a tech person, just getting to speak to officials in the most closed country on earth about the virtues of the Internet–and having them (appear to) listen–seemed extraordinary.
It was a nine-person delegation in total. We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they’d be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.
#1 Caveat: It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other). The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.
Top Level Take-aways:
- Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
- If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
- Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.
I can’t express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill. The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.
Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference. I can’t think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country’s inner workings–down to the basics of its economy–further serves to reinforce the state’s control. The best description we could come up with: it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale.
Continue reading here. This is a well written article with numerous pictures and interesting commentary. The page layout is sometimes hard to follow, but overall I give Sophie Schmidt an A+ for content. Just for fun, here’s a YouTube of the Pyongyang Traffic Girls From the Sky. It’s a real jucher.