Google's Eric Schmidt To Visit North Korea

Mark Stone, Asia Correspondent

The US State Department has expressed its disappointment at the decision by Google's chairman to travel to North Korea.

A spokesperson at a Washington briefing said the department would have no involvement in Eric Schmidt's visit, which is expected to take place in the next month.

"Frankly, we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"They are travelling in an unofficial capacity they are not going to be accompanied by any US officials. They are not carrying any messages from us," she added.

Mr Schmidt is understood to be travelling to North Korea on a humanitarian mission with the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, who has been involved in unofficial negotiations with the country since 1994.

The purpose of this visit has not been disclosed. North Korea is seen as the last frontier of the internet, leading to speculation that this is a strategic and business-related move for Google.

The few who do have access to a computer in North Korea do not have access to the World Wide Web and instead use a heavily censored intranet service.

The office of the former US governor refused to comment on the trip and a Google spokesperson said it would not comment on Mr Schmidt's "personal travel".

The US State Department has, in the past, encouraged the use of the internet to spread democracy.

However, this visit is seen as 'unhelpful' because of its timing, coming just weeks after Pyongyang successfully launched a rocket into orbit. The launch was, America claims, a cover for a ballistic missile test.

There is some speculation that Mr Schmidt and Mr Richardson may attempt to negotiate the release of Korean-American Kenneth Bae.

Mr Bae was arrested by the North Korean authorities in mid-December. According to South Korean media, he was with five other tourists when he was accused of being a spy and detained.

On Monday, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un delivered an unprecedented televised address to the nation in which he called for an end to confrontation with the South.

He said the country would undergo a "radical turnaround" becoming an "economic giant". Quite how this would be achieved was not outlined.

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