A recent visit to North Korea by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, revealed the limits of private diplomacy, but also some of the benefits. When Schmidt returned from North Korea earlier this month, he argued that Internet freedom was the only means to increase the poor country’s productivity. That recommendation seemed the height of tech-centric naivete; giving citizens the power to communicate with one another and the outside world is contrary to Pyongyang’s entire way of thinking.
Still, Schmidt should be given credit for trying to initiate a new conversation with a regime that has been largely impervious to diplomacy. There’s always the remote possibility that third-party delegations, like that led by Schmidt, can reframe a diplomatic discussion where governments have failed.
And while Schmidt’s trip was viewed as “unhelpful” by the State Department, it will certainly benefit from the trip. Schmidt and his delegation, including former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador Bill Richardson, are likely to be consulted by foreign policy leaders who don’t know much about the country or its dynamics. Richardson left with a letter from Kenneth Bae, a naturalized American citizen who is being held for unspecified reasons, possibly signaling some resolution for his family.
A recent account by Schmidt’s daughter Sophie, who accompanied him, made it clear they had few illusions about their visit, which Sophie Schmidt described as a combination of “highly-staged encounters” and “genuine human moments.” Eric Schmidt’s statements were anything but complimentary of what North Korea has done to its people. His message, delivered with no obvious government agenda behind it, hopefully did not fall on deaf ears.