Executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, back row left, and former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, back row right, watch North Korean soldiers working on computers. Photo: AP
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson says his delegation is pressing North Korea to put a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests and to allow more mobile phones and an open internet for its citizens.
Richardson said in Pyongyang that the group is also asking for fair and humane treatment for an American citizen detained in North Korea. Also on the trip is Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
"The citizens of the DPRK [North Korea] will be better off with more cell phones and an active internet. Those are the ... messages we've given to a variety of foreign policy officials, scientists" and government officials, Richardson said.
Most North Koreans have never logged onto the internet, and the country's authoritarian government strictly limits access to the world wide web.
Richardson has said the delegation is on a private, humanitarian trip. Schmidt, who is the highest-profile US business executive to visit North Korea since leader Kim Jong Un took power a year ago, has not spoken publicly about the reasons behind the journey to North Korea.
The visit comes just weeks after North Korea launched a long-range rocket to send a satellite into space. Washington has condemned the launch as a banned test of missile technology. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday "the trip is ill-advised," and another State spokesman reacted to Richardson's latest remarks by referring to Nuland's statement again.
Spokesman Peter Velasco also said from Washington that he also did not believe Richardson's delegation had been in contact with US officials since they arrived in Pyongyang.
Schmidt, who oversaw Google's expansion into a global internet giant, speaks frequently about the importance of providing people around the world with internet access and technology. Google now has offices in more than 40 countries, including all three of North Korea's neighbours: Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticised for systematic internet censorship.
He and Google Ideas think tank director Jared Cohen, who is also on the trip, have collaborated on a book about the internet's role in shaping society.
Using science and technology to build North Korea's beleaguered economy was the highlight of a New Year's Day speech by leader Kim Jong Un. Still, the reality is that experts see North Korea as one of the least connected countries in the world.
On Tuesday, students at North Korea's elite Kim Il Sung University showed Schmidt how they use Google to look for information online. Surfing the internet that way is the privilege of only a small few in North Korea.
Officials say students at the university have had internet access since April 2010.
While university students at Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology also have carefully monitored internet access — and are under strict instructions to access only educational materials — most North Koreans have never surfed the web.
Computers at Pyongyang's main library at the Grand People's Study house are linked to a domestic intranet service that allows people to read state-run media online and access a trove of reading materials culled by North Korean officials. North Koreans with computers at home can also sign up for the intranet service. But access to the world wide web is extremely rare and often is limited to those with clearance to get on the internet.
The US delegation's visit takes place as the US pushes to punish North Korea for launching a long-range rocket in December.
Pyongyang celebrates the launch as a peaceful bid to send a satellite into space. The US and other critics, however, condemn it as a covert test of long-range missile technology, and are urging the UN Security Council to take action against North Korea.
Some conservatives in the US have had harsh criticism of the Schmidt-Richardson trip.
Schmidt and Richardson "have joined the long list of Americans and others used by the Kim family dictatorship for political advantage," John Bolton, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, wrote in the New York Daily News.
"North Korea has repeatedly welcomed prominent Americans to help elevate its stature. It is seeking direct negotiations with Washington, for in the distorted vision of the nation's leadership, this might lead to full diplomatic recognition and 'equal' status in the world community."