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Andrew Rosen: Is North Korea Google’s Utopian Straw Man?

January 14, 2013

It’s been amusing to watch the speculation around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit to North Korea. The question on every writer’s mind is, quite simply, what was the purpose of the visit?

One of the core answers may lie in Google Ideas, headed by former State Department staffer Jared Cohen, who joined Schmidt on the trip. This was suggested by Professor Stephan Haggard in his post suggesting some motives for the trip. Specifically North Korea is “the n’est plus ultra of information suppression” and, Google Ideas is focused on counter-radicalization, illicit networks, and fragile states. So one guess is that Google is in North Korea because the state falls in between Google’s definitions of illicit networks and fragile states, and Google wants to learn more.

Slate has an excellent post on why the dynamics of North Korea are particularly problematic, and therefore interesting, for Google:

North Korea is facing an extreme version of the dictator’s dilemma. On the one hand, its leaders are attracted to the knowledge, economic growth, and global connectivity that are facilitated by the Internet. At the same time, they know that the Internet would threaten their grip on power. Most regimes facing this quandary have chosen to embrace technology, even with the corresponding loss of control. North Korea is likely to do the same. The difference is that it might not survive the consequences.

The question, then, is what potential vacuum does Google believe it can help fill with its technology and expertise? This New Yorker interview with one of the academics who joined the trip gives some insight:

Kim Jong-un is putting a major stress on economic development and on building a “knowledge-based economy.”… Google folks went there to make the case for the virtues of the Internet, and North Koreans listened.

So it’s clear how Google may contribute to North Korea’s future, what does Google believe it can do in North Korea? North Korea doesn’t have anything remotely close to the scale of a national network for mobile or broadband: 1 million of 24 million citizens have access to mobile phones, and fewer than 1,000 have access to the Internet.

A clue to the answer can be found in a piece Schmidt and Cohen wrote in the Washington Post last July:

We believe the spread of modern devices and access for those most threatened will create a virtual, albeit nascent, counterweight against the world’s worst criminals. Even stubborn governments will one day have to meet their citizens’ rising expectations.

The implicit point, then, is that Google can provide the devices and access for those threatened. And to be clear, in theory it very well could: it has the devices (Chromebooks, Nexus phones and tablets), it can provide the access (perhaps routing via its servers at the Internet Exchange Point in Seoul), and it can provide the expertise to Kim Jong-un.

That would be a humanitarian gesture of extraordinary magnitude with lasting implications: Google would be North Korea’s post-dictatorship infrastructure.

Of course, the danger in all this is that Schmidt and Cohen are pursuing a utopian vision that’s Google-centric and tech driven, and perceive North Korea as low hanging fruit for this vision. In other words, Schmidt and Cohen perceive the forces of technology to be so strong that Kim Jong-un will face the inevitable choice of adapt or die. And he’s better off at adapting rapidly by building on top of Google’s infrastructure and using Google’s tools.

It’s a bit of an extreme vision, and to be fair to Schmidt and Cohen, they concede “Technology is just a tool.” But whatever Schmidt and Cohen perceive the opportunity to be, they will need to account for geographic, market, and legal factors.

For example, North Korea’s neighbors Chinese and South Korean companies will want to build North Korea’s infrastructure, too. If there’s a vacuum coming, market and political chaos driven by external players with proximity to North Korea is a more likely outcome than a 21st century knowledge-driven marketplace built by and upon Google.

But Schmidt and Cohen are almost certainly playing with that utopian straw man because it’s an interesting one, it’s feasible right now as long as North Korean dictatorship is in place, and it reflects a logical, if not extraordinary, opportunity for Google as it evolves.

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