Google chairman Eric Schmidt arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea, today on a four-day visit organized by Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations. Schmidt hasn’t commented on the trip, which was criticized by the US State Department, but Richardson said during a layover in Beijing, “This is not a Google trip, but I’m sure he’s interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this.”
Richardson didn’t explain what he meant by “the social media aspect,” but Schmidt won’t find much of it in North Korea, which is largely cut off from the internet. The government, instead, maintains a national intranet known as Kwangmyong, which includes government websites, state-owned news, email service, and academic resources. Some websites are also downloaded from the regular internet, censored, and then uploaded to the North Korean intranet.
Similar intranets are used by Cuba and Myanmar, and Iran is said to be developing one, as well.
Most people in North Korea don’t have direct access even to Kwangmyong, which is mostly used by students and some businesspeople. Reports in 2010 and 2011 suggested that Kim Jung Il, the country’s since-deceased leader, was expanding access to computers and developing an e-learning system for students outside Pyongyang, the capital. But the North Korean intranet moves at a snail’s pace, in many ways: websites look like the World Wide Web in 1990s, and connections are still usually made on dial-up modems.
North Korea does have access to the broader internet, making its first connection in 2010, but access is severely restricted. A piece in Motherboard last year said internet access is limited to foreign journalists, government officials, and North Korea’s squad of hackers known as Unit 121.