Google in North Korea: Pyongyang Kowtow or Smart Diplomacy?
When Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson headed to the DPRK in early January they certainly turned some heads.
Many viewed their trip as undermining Western efforts to secure stronger sanctions, following North Korea’s ballistic missile launch in December 2012. They have also been criticised for providing Kim Jong-un with an opportunity to ‘convey a sense of legitimacy and international recognition and acceptance’ to his people. With a nuclear test apparently looming over the horizon, why did Schmidt and Richardson make this visit?
It is hard to imagine that Schmidt was there to seize on the North’s unrealised market potential. Although some speculate that the DPRK may be ready to change its approach regarding free use of the internet, there is scant evidence to support this claim. From the US perspective, one obvious reason for the visit was to secure the release of an American detainee, Kenneth Bae, arrested while escorting tourists in late 2012 for allegedly possessing banned electronic devices. This explanation makes sense, as it fits with the regime’s traditional pattern of behaviour.
While there have been glimmers of hope that Kim Jong-un might move away from his father’s isolationist tendencies, experience tells us to be sceptical. Even though new power dynamics appear to be at play within the Kim Jong-un regime, only minor modifications have been made. The ways in which his government leverages international insecurity to achieve political objectives — through missile launches, arms proliferation and nuclear tests — continue to maintain the status quo set by his father, Kim Jong-il.
One only needs to look back to 2009 when Kim Jong-il used another set of detainees to force a visit by former US president Bill Clinton. In that case two American journalists, Euna Lee and Lora Ling, had been caught illegally entering the North without a visa, but were released during Clinton’s visit. While the details of Bae’s case differ, his detention nevertheless illustrates North Korea’s similar use of detention to elicit a high-level ‘private humanitarian’ mission response.
One can understand why US power brokers concluded that the visit, which the US government could (and did) publicly disavow, was necessary. Although the visit rewarded North Korea for using Bae as a pawn in its strategic game of chess with the United States, it secured Bae’s freedom. While this sets a bad precedent for King Jong-un, if history repeats itself, Bae should be released sometime in 2013.
But this raises an important follow-on question: who is really in the driver’s seat in US–DPRK relations? If the DPRK can effectively coerce the United States so easily, what hope is there that the United States can stop North Korea from further developing its nuclear and cyber programs? This is an important point and one that continues to divide policy experts in Washington. President Obama has made it clear that he is ‘not afraid of losing the PR war to dictators’. Yet others may see the US administration’s ‘concession’ as a tragic form of nuclear accommodation.
Either way, it is naïve to think that the visit was just a trade-off between a detainee and some small recognition of North Korean power and prestige. The trip also provided an excellent opportunity for Kim Jong-un to be heard. If the DPRK wants to return to the negotiating table, then perhaps this is their preferred approach. Since the United States probably shares that desire, the detainee episode might just serve as a bizarre trigger for such re-engagement.
If the DPRK is moving toward another nuclear test, as some have suggested, then the region is facing yet another escalation. Getting the DPRK back to the table before it crosses the line and conducts the test probably is, at least in the minds of many in the Obama administration, worth the cost of the detainee drama.
The question now is what if this approach fails? For example, what if Bae is not released and the DPRK either avoids harsh sanctions or conducts another nuclear test?
Despite these risks, the trip also provided an opportunity for Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, a rare real-world opportunity to engage the Kim Jong-un regime. If Schmidt and Cohen now come out and hammer North Korea on internet freedom, cyber security and general economic backwardness, they can do so from experience, increasing their persuasiveness with both foreign and domestic audiences. They may also have gleaned some valuable new insights into how to advance US national security objectives.
Kim Jong-un has certainly gained the most from the Google delegation visit up to this point. But in the long term, it remains unclear who the visit most advantaged. In the current climate, it is possible that President Obama will find it more difficult to obtain China’s support on North Korean proliferation during his second term in office. So the United States may be willing to wager more to court North Korea in the year ahead, hoping that Kim Jong-un follows Myanmar’s lead. While this may ultimately be wishful thinking, one could argue that it is worth the risk when considering the perceived lack of alternatives.
An earlier version of this article appeared here on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s website and here on the East Asia Forum.