When the serious Googling begins in N. Korea, where will it end?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

The visit of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to North Korea this week raises intriguing questions about Internet usage there to which we may not get real answers for a long time.

Belatedly, North Korea has had to open access to the Internet to highly select elite that includes students at two or three leading universities as well as officials with a specific need to know.

Eric Schmidt of Google, right, and Tony Namkung try on 3-D glasses during a tour of the Korean Computer Center in Pyongyang, on Jan. 9. /David Guttenfelder/AP

Those restrictions may rule out casual surfing of the web, but you have to wonder how authorities can totally prevent someone from stealing a few glances at contraband topics such as the real background of the ruling Kim dynasty, its origins under Soviet rule and its systematic repression of its people.

For those who are able to go on-line, we have to assume all that stuff, plus much else, is not going to show up on a routine search. If the police in South Korea can keep people from looking at the website of Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency by posting a “warning” whenever you try to click on the site, you may be sure the North Koreans can stop anything at all distasteful.

But how far will the censorship go? Somehow I’m assuming North Koreans, that is, the few with any Internet access at all, aren’t going to be pressing the button on anything pornographic, and I rather doubt they’ll be checking out films, television programs and news whenever they want.

How about department stores and wondrous toys that few North Koreans get to such as iPods and iPads and iPhones and smart phones and tablets. Wouldn’t the authorities want to discourage even the most educated and trustworthy of the elite from learning too much about the good life they’re missing.

Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, no doubt asked questions, but were they able to quiz their North Korean hosts about the extent to which the internet is truly open to those few who are authorized to use it.

It was one thing for them to get a bright young kid to “google” the name of a university or city, but how about punching in “north korea” and “human rights?” And might the curious surfer be able to check out “kim jong-il” and “paektusan” to discover the absurdity of the myth of the late “Dear Leader’s” birth in a cabin on North Korea’s sacred mountain?

Presumably everyone on the trip, led by the former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, and his long-time adviser, Tony Namkung, was well aware of certain “boundaries” within which they could operate. Richardson has been to North Korea half a dozen times, but the real inside operator is Namkung, who’s gone there no less than 40 times in the past 20-25 years.

Born of Korean parents in Shanghai, raised in Japan and finally educated in the U.S., Namkung is the person to see for anyone in need of high-level, high-stakes advice on North Korea. He was the inside guy on the visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton in which Clinton returned with two Current TV journalists who had spent 140 days in jail after their capture by North Korean guards while filming along the Tumen River border with China, and he has performed many other roles in the interests of rapprochement and understanding, often with Richardson at his side.

One of Namkung’s more impressive roles was that of adviser and intermediary for the Associated Press in opening a bureau in Pyongyang. Not surprisingly, one topic you don’t hear him talking about, or see mentioned in the AP’s upbeat coverage from there, is human rights.

Also not surprisingly, the AP had the inside track on Schmidt’s visit. At every photo-op, he and Richardson were seen smiling benignly. They were not about to offend their hosts with quotes about the inherent conflict between the quest for openness and transparency and North Korea’s policy of total suppression.

You’ve got to believe, though, that ingenious North Koreans are figuring out ways to look up anything they want on the Internet. That stands to reason when you consider episodes of cyber attacks on South Korea and reports of access to sensitive South Korean websites. If North Korean experts can wreak such havoc, we may be sure that some of them can look at sites that are ostensibly closed.

Just imagine North Koreans in some corner of the computer library accessing porn or, far worse, exposes of the Kim dynasty while erasing any trace of what they’re looking at. That’s a danger facing a regime that’s anxious to open enough to serve its self-interest – but not at the risk of jeopardizing its power.