Google chairman to visit North Korea

Google chairman to visit North Korea

Google chairman to visit North Korea

Posted 4 January 2013, 11:13 AEST

South Korea has confirmed the chairman of search giant Google is planning to visit North Korea, in a move that has sparked criticism from the United States.

The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal have reported chairman Eric Schmidt will visit as part of a humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.

Google has so far refused to officially confirm the visit.

South Korea's foreign ministry spokesman, Cho Tai-Young, says Seoul is aware of Mr Schmidt's plans, but not of the reason or timing behind the visit.

"We are aware that he is planning a personal visit," he said.

"We know of Schmidt's visit to the North only as a private visit. So there is no specific comment to be made from our government."

The US State Department criticised the visit, which comes in the wake of North Korea's widely condemned long-range rocket launch last month.

Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Mr Schmidt and Mr Richardson would be travelling in an "unofficial capacity" and "they are not carrying any messages from us."

"Frankly we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful... in light of recent actions by (Pyongyang)," she said.

Mr Richardson has been to North Korea a number of times in the past 20 years and has been involved in negotiating the release of US citizens detained in the country.

He was last in Pyongyang in 2010 when he met North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator in an attempt to ease tensions after the North shelled a South Korean border island.

Reports of the latest mission emerged just weeks after North Korea confirmed it had arrested a US citizen of Korean descent and said he would be formally prosecuted for unspecified crimes against the state.

In the past, Pyongyang has agreed to hand over detainees to high-profile delegations led by the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, and some observers suggested it may have specifically requested Mr Schmidt's participation.

North Koreans are largely isolated from external news and information sources and very few citizens have access to a computer, let alone the Internet.

Google is present in neighbouring China, where it has long struggled with government censors.

In 2010 it effectively shut down its Chinese search engine, re-routing mainland users to its uncensored site in Hong Kong.

ABC/Wires