Google Chairman Eric Schmidt's trip to North Korea came as a surprise to many yesterday.
It seems likely that the news would have remained secret without the AP's North Korea correspondent Jean H. Lee's scoop.
Surprise isn't the only reaction we're seeing though.
According to the BBC, U.S. State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has commented negatively on the trip: "We don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful."
The State Department's attitude is understandable, given North Korea's recent missile launch.
Despite this, Schmidt's trip can't be written off so easily.
For one thing, it is extremely unlikely that Schmidt is in town to launch Google.kp, no matter how exciting that sounds.
Subsequent reporting from Lee has revealed that the trip will be a "private, humanitarian mission" and that Schmidt would be traveling with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Korea expert Kun "Tony" Namkung.
Schmidt is well known as an advocate for Internet connectivity — something sorely lacking in the hermit kingdom. Few people in the country can access the open Internet; most are instead restricted to an extremely limited intranet — one that automatically shows Kim Jong-un and his family's name in larger text than surrounding words.
As with everything in North Korea, any predictions about Kim reforming the Internet are largely based on speculation. Signs of shorter skirts and gelled hair on the streets of Pyongyang have generally been taken as a positive sign of a new liberal attitude, and his New Year's speech contained some encouraging passages. While Lee doubts that Kim will budge much on Internet access, he clearly wants to improve the country's competitiveness when it comes to technology.
Technology has become accessible for more and more citizens in North Korea in recent years, and it does seem to be making a difference. Mobile phone subscriptions within the country jumped from 1,600 in 2008 to 300,000 in 2010, eventually reaching 1 million last year, and illegal Chinese mobile phones have been making their way across the border, enabling limited contact with the outside world. Pirated DVDs of South Korean soap operas are also said to be making the rounds, showing citizens that life in the South isn't as hellish as the state tells them.
The hope for North Koreans is that Schmidt can help push Kim in the direction of using technology in a way that is positive for his people.
As one South Korean Foreign Ministry official said in 2011 when North Korean experts reportedly visited Google in Mountain View, California, "Though it's unlikely that North Korea will open up to the outside world immediately, [showing North Koreans the level of U.S. technology and influence] could help shift the mindset of the regime over the long term."
There's also another interesting possibility — this may have nothing to do with the Internet and technology at all. Victor Cha, senior advisor and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has put forward another idea in a primer on the situation: "The Schmidt-Richardson delegation might broach discussions for release of a Korean-American currently detained in North Korea."
As such, Schmidt may use his visit to the country to assist discussions over the release of a detained American citizen referred to as Bae Jun Ho, much like Bill Clinton assisted in the release of two journalists for Current TV in 2009 (incidentally Clinton was the most recent high-profile American to visit the country).
That said, the criticism is easy to understand. Given that North Korea successfully launched a rocket last month — not only ignoring the international community but catching U.S. intelligence teams completely off guard — it's not surprising that the U.S. government isn't too pleased.
There are wider issues too. North Korea is still a country that does virtually no business with American companies. It's a country where interaction with foreigners and freedom of movement are severely curtailed. It's a country where the use of mobile phones and the Internet is heavily censored (as Kim has noted, Schmidt will be forced to hand in his mobile phone as soon as he enters the country).
The problem is that these issues aren't going to go away with isolation. As The New York Times' Nick Kristof tweeted today in response to the situation, "We need back channels; isolation doesn't work."
More From Business Insider