Melissa Block talks to Jean Lee, Korea Bureau Chief of the Associated Press, about the private delegation that is visiting North Korea. The group is led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and includes Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
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And I'm Melissa Block. What is the executive chairman of Google doing in North Korea? The high-profile visit of Eric Schmidt - on a trip led by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson - has raised eyebrows and lots of questions. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the autocratic regime, and the State Department has called the venture unhelpful and ill-advised. Jean Lee is the Korea bureau chief with the Associated Press, and she's traveling with the delegation.
She joins me from just outside the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Jean Lee, Bill Richardson has said this is not a Google trip, but North Korea calls this a Google delegation. It does raise lots of questions about just what is going on with this mission.
JEAN LEE: They're calling this a private humanitarian visit by private American citizens. This is something that Eric Schmidt was interested in doing, in making a trip to North Korea, and he has enlisted Bill Richardson, who has made at least half a dozen trips to North Korea, to help them. And he is here to meet with foreign policy officials, scientists to get a look at how the Internet works, get a look at their computer technology.
BLOCK: We did see photos coming out from visits yesterday to a North Korean computer center. They were watching a student Googling, but it is misleading to put it into context. I've read estimates that only 4,000 maybe North Koreans have Internet access out of 25 million, and that access is very, very tightly controlled.
LEE: It's extremely restrictive. They do have Internet access, but it's limited to the very top universities. Often, students have to apply in advance and provide a list of what it is they want to do online. People who do have access to computers can log on to an intranet site, but very few people can actually get onto the World Wide Web.
BLOCK: Jean, there's been a lot of criticism from many sides that this visit to North Korea lends legitimacy to a very brutal regime and that it undermines U.S. efforts to put pressure on North Korea at a time when there have been hostile acts taken: a long-range missile launch, the detention of a U.S. citizen born in Korea. What is the context behind all of this?
LEE: It is a very delicate time. The North Koreans launched a long-range rocket just less than a month ago. It was December 12. Now, this is something that the North Koreans are celebrating as a peaceful exploration of space, but that Washington considers a secret test of long-range missile technology. Also, with an American in detention in North Korea, it's just a very sensitive time when it comes to diplomacy. Now, I do know that this delegation had been planning this trip well before any of these developments came to light and that they decided to go ahead with the trip even though there were some concerns on the part of the State Department.
BLOCK: Do you know if Bill Richardson has raised those questions about the missile launch and the detention of this U.S. citizen? Has he raised those with North Korean officials on this trip?
LEE: He told me today that he has brought up the issue. I know that he was hoping to meet with the American who's in detention but won't have the time to do that and has been urging them to put a moratorium on future launches and any possible future nuclear tests.
BLOCK: And what else is on the agenda for this delegation to North Korea?
LEE: They leave tomorrow morning, so it's a very short trip, perhaps it's an introductory trip, perhaps it was just an opportunity for Eric Schmidt to get a look at this country that is a black hole when it comes to understanding how the Internet works, but they are pretty much done for this trip.
BLOCK: Jean Lee is the Korea bureau chief with the Associated Press. She spoke with me from just outside of Pyongyang, North Korea. Jean, thanks so much.
LEE: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.