PYONGYANG, North Korea — A private delegation including Google's Eric Schmidt is urging North Korea to allow more open Internet access and cellphones to benefit its citizens, the mission's leader said Wednesday in the country with some of the world's tightest controls on information.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also said his nine-member group called on North Korea to put a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests that have prompted U.N. sanctions, and the delegation asked for fair and humane treatment for an American citizen detained. He spoke in an exclusive interview in Pyongyang with The Associated Press.
The visit has been criticized for appearing to hijack U.S. diplomacy and boost Pyongyang's profile after North Korea's latest, widely condemned rocket launch. Richardson has said the delegation is on a private, humanitarian trip.
Schmidt, the executive chairman of the U.S.-based Internet giant Google, is the highest-profile American business executive to visit North Korea since leader Kim Jong Un took power a year ago.
Although Schmidt often meets with government officials around the world on behalf of Google, he didn't make this trip at the company's request.
Schmidt has not said publicly what he hopes to get out of his visit to North Korea. However, he has been a vocal proponent of Internet freedom and openness, and is publishing a book in April with Jared Cohen, director of the company's Google Ideas think tank, about the power of global connectivity in transforming people's lives, policies and politics.
Cohen doesn't typically accompany Schmidt on Google-sanctioned trips, a sign that the two men may be primarily interested in gathering more material for their book.
On Wednesday, Schmidt toured the frigid quarters of the brick building in central Pyongyang that is the heart of North Korea's own computer industry. He asked pointed questions about North Korea's new tablet computers as well as its Red Star operating system, and he briefly donned a pair of 3-D goggles during a tour of the Korea Computer Center.
Even if Schmidt isn't officially representing Google in North Korea, the company stands to benefit if the country's leadership were to loosen its Internet restrictions.
For years, the Mountain View, California, company has pushed for more accessible and affordable Internet connections and Web-surfing devices on the premise that its business ultimately will make more money if people spend more time online.
Besides the world's most dominant search engine, Google also offers a variety of other services that rank among the most popular destinations on the Internet. More Internet traffic translates into more opportunities to sell digital ads, which account for most of its more than $50 billion in annual revenue.
Richardson told The Associated Press that his delegation was bringing a message that more openness would benefit North Korea. Most in the country have never logged onto the Internet, and the authoritarian government strictly limits access to the World Wide Web.