I’m a bit phobic of of dictators & dictatorships. Near as I can tell, there is no dedicated word for it like geniophobia, “the fear of chins” (no joke). I love to travel and what to see as much of the world as possible, but I run the other direction when dictators are in charge. I’m just not that adventurous.
Google North of the Demilitarized Zone
This brings me to Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to sunny North Korea, the land of forced labor camps, starvation, near-absolute isolation from the outside world, and apparently unicorns.
Schmidt’s goal seemed to be encouraging the North Korean government to open up Internet access for its people. After his trip he stated:
“We made that alternative very, very clear. Once the internet starts in any country, citizens in that country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do one thing: open up the Internet first. They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government of North Korea has not yet done. It is their choice now, and in my view, it’s time for them to start, or they will remain behind” (G+).
More on this in a bit.
North Korea Isolation
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think most Americans appreciate how isolated the citizens of North Korea are from the rest of the world. With the exception of a tiny group of elites, they have no connection to the outside world through the Internet, phones, mail, or even physical travel.
They are trapped. They don’t have any modern technology, and most people can’t even fathom it. Unlike so many people living under theocratic dictatorships in the Middle East, most North Koreans don’t even know how oppressed they are. In order to realize it, you have to see or read how other people live, and they can’t. And that’s not even getting into the forced labor camps for political prisoners.
Much of this is noted by Schmidt’s daughter Sophie. Quartz broke down the low-lights of Sophie’s recent blog post:
- The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of ”killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
- None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
- The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
- Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
- The group saw a room with roughly 90 North Koreans at computers in the Kim Il Sung University e-Library. But, Sophie writes, “One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared.”
- The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service. (Quartz)”
This stuff is very telling because dictators like to impress powerful guests. If they had computers in a heated room, that’s the room that would have been on display.
Now to my point.
Schmidt is Wrong
I’m a huge advocate for the transformative powers of the Internet. It’s why I get so pissed off at any attempt to censor the network. That being said, I don’t think that the Internet is what North Korean citizens need in 2013. A few things that they do need…
- An end to forced labor camps
- Basic civil rights
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great reference for what is important in life. The idea is that starting from the bottom, each layer must be achieved in order to get to the next. For example, you aren’t worried about fulfilling your dreams if you don’t have access to drinkable water.
The point is, as powerful as the Internet is, and I have no doubt that it will one day play a critical role in transforming the lives of the people of North Korea, it’s just not the solution right now. Schmidt’s visit and message are brutally self-serving.
Google can benefit from an Internet-connected North Korea.
The people of North Korea can benefit from an Internet-connected North Korea… But only after some of the most brutal trappings of dictatorship are eradicated. Schmidt had a chance to see a bit of life behind the DMZ, and make his message heard. He could have done some real good, but instead he chose to push Google’s agenda, and promote his upcoming book.