On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the timing was not right for Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to visit North Korea. Despite current events, she said both men were quite aware of the government's concerns about the timing of their trip.
News of the trip first surfaced on Wednesday, reporting that both men will be making a "private humanitarian visit" and will not represent the Obama administration. Sources claim that Richardson, who will reportedly be leading the humanitarian mission, will be negotiating the release of an American prisoner who was captured last month.
But why is Schmidt going? Victor Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told the Associated Press that it was highly unlikely the Google exec planned to talk business.
"Perhaps the most intriguing part of this trip is simply the idea of it," Cha said. "[Kim Jong Un] clearly has a penchant for the modern accoutrements of life. If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development."
In a New Year's Day speech to North Korea on Monday, leader Kim Jong Un said the nation is in the midst of a modern-day "industrial revolution". He's pushing to have digitized machinery in every factory and computers in every class room. Science and technology will be the path to economic development, yet giving citizens open access to the internet – the worldwide digital frontier outside the country's domestic Intranet service – won't be a part of that plan.
News of the Schmidt-Richardson trip arrives after the supposed completion of another round of rocket testing in North Korea last month. There's speculation that these rockets – AKA international ballistic missiles – have the range to strike the west coast here in the States. They can fly more than 6,200 miles carrying a warhead of about 1,100 to 1,300 pounds, experts said.
"They efficiently developed a three-stage long-range missile by using their existing Rodong and Scud missile technology," a senior military intelligence official told The New York Times, adding that the debris could also be tied to Iran.
But North Korea claims the debris discovered by South Korea was merely its Unha-3 rocket which put an earth-observation satellite in orbit as part of its "peaceful" space exploration program. Still, tensions are high as expressed by the State Department on Thursday.
"We don't think the timing of this [North Korea visit] is particularly helpful," Nuland told reporters regarding the Schmidt-Richardson trip.