North Korea has exercised strict control over its population of 24 million since it was founded by Kim Il Sung in 1948, including tight rules on the flow of information and close monitoring of the people’s interaction with the outside world.
But as the Asian nation’s tiny economy has languished in its isolation, the government has sought in recent years to turn its economy around by carefully and cautiously reaching out to foreign nations _ primarily neighboring China and Southeast Asian allies _ for help.
Young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power a year ago following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, has made improving the economy a focal point of national policy for 2013, and has urged the people to expand their knowledge of science and technology to reach that goal.
Across the snowy capital, new propaganda signs and slogans reiterate those goals, exhorting the people to “break through the cutting edge” and “push back the frontiers” of science and technology in the spirit of the Dec. 12 space launch.
The number of cell phone users has surpassed 1.5 million in a few short years, with help from the Egyptian telecommunications giant Orascom, which provides a 3G cell phone service.
However, offering open Internet access has not been part of the strategy. Experts see North Korea as one of the least connected countries in the world.
Though global broadband Internet is available in North Korea, few have permission to log onto the World Wide Web. Those with computers and Internet access typically are restricted to a domestic Intranet site that filters the information and publications available to North Koreans.
On Wednesday, the group toured the main library in Pyongyang, the Grand People’s Study House, where locals still in their winter coats were crowded into drafty, unheated halls at computers with Intranet access to the library’s archive of books, documents and newspapers.
Later, the delegation visited the multi-story Korea Computer Center, the hub of North Korea’s software and computer product development, where a quote from Kim Jong Il reads: “Now is the era for science and technology. It is the era of computers.”
Inside an atrium exhibition hall lined with widescreen displays showing off North Korea’s computer products, the Google group fiddled around with the new Samjiyon tablet computer utilizing foreign-made hardware and North Korean software and linked to the Internet through a wifi router.
They learned about North Korea’s data encryption software, face recognition devices, video chat room software and instant messaging services.
So far, the computer center has teamed up with nations including China, Russia and India to develop products _ but is hoping to reach out to establish partnerships with other countries also, officials told Schmidt and Richardson.
Schmidt, who as chief executive of Google until 2011 oversaw the Internet search provider’s expansion into a global Internet giant, speaks frequently about the importance of providing people around the world with Internet access and technology.
Google now has offices in more than 40 countries, including Russia, South Korea and China, another country criticized for systematic Internet censorship.