Sophie Schmidt, articulate teenage daughter of Google tycoon and chairman Eric Schmidt, has written a much-talked-about blog post regarding her recent trip to North Korea. As other bloggers have pointed out (here in particular), Sophie's post is better-written and more frank than the fluff being churned out by the useful-idiot Pyongyang branch of the Associated Press. Among Sophie's insights:
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.
The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village:
[image of people in carrels, staring intently at flat-screen monitors]
Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.
One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.
Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.
When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.
Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).
North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo'd their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.
What's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it's not like they're going to export this technology. They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.