Earlier this month, a delegation led by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, which included Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, visited North Korea in a highly visible trip. While the visit was a private one, as Richardson no longer holds any public office nor is Schmidt a government official, it was met with dismay from the U.S. State Department. Labeling the trip as "ill-advised," the State Department found the delegation to be unhelpful, as the international community continues to press the North Koreans over their nuclear program. But while the trip was not a diplomatic one per se, it was a great example of how diplomacy in the twenty-first century will increasingly function: non-government actors with incredible clout and influence pressing a government for change. Such trips should be welcomed and encouraged by the international community.
Bill Richardson is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and has been on a number of trips to North Korea in the past, advocating for the release of Americans held by the Pyongyang government. This trip was no different for the former Governor, as he called upon the North Koreans for "fair and humane treatment" of American Kenneth Bae, who has been detained since November. Along with his advocacy for Bae, Richardson also pressed Pyongyang to halt missile launches and nuclear tests -- requests that will likely have no impact on the North's considerations.
The more interesting component of the trip was Schmidt's presence, and his advocacy of open and accessible Internet and cellphones in the country. Critics have been quick to brandish his agenda as foolishly hopeful, but there is definite value in pushing governments through such high profile individuals as Schmidt. The Google Chairman and his team did not simply conduct press conferences, but they interacted with citizens, talked to them about technology and engaged them in discussions indicating just how far behind North Korea has fallen, and the degree to which it risks even further informational exclusion.
The world also learned that the North Koreans who do have access to technology clearly see its value. Schmidt and his team fielded questions pertaining to the Android platform, as North Koreans were interested in learning about how they can put their own apps on the Android market. More significantly, as Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google's Chairman, and member of the delegation, reported, officials within the North Korean government conceded to her that broad access to the Internet is inevitable in their country.
Despite the State Department's assertion that the trip was unhelpful, there was useful information that the world learned about North Korea. More interactions and trips could open up even more dialogue and understanding, and help chip away at the government's staunch opposition to free flowing information. Private groups have an advantage to affect change that governments do not, mainly allowing North Korea the option to modify its policies without appearing to succumb to countries that have been portrayed by Pyongyang as inferior. They can change from a position of strength.
To be sure, civil society is not always the answer. Particularly in matters of defense and nuclear security, which North Korea clearly is, civil society and private groups are largely ineffective. But this does not mean that they shouldn't be provided an outlet to try and push an agenda. North Korea, largely by its own choosing, has been isolated from the rest of the world when it comes to technology and communication. More engagement and inclusiveness through civil society, in non-security matters, should be afforded an opportunity. The alternative, which has been pushed by the international community, has produced no results over the past several decades. A fresh approach should be welcomed.