Sunday 15 December 2019

The ‘very, very strange’ world of North Korea, as blogged by daughter of Google boss

Tim Walker

THE teenage daughter of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has provided a rare glimpse into a "very, very strange" North Korea, after she accompanied her father on his recent visit to the secretive Communist state. Over the weekend Sophie Schmidt, who is 19, published a detailed blog post about the trip, which she joined earlier this month as part of a nine-person delegation led by the former US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson.

Schmidt described the visit as “a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.” The delegation, she writes, enjoyed “zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans.” They were trailed at all times by a pair of minders from the paranoid Pyongyang government: one to mind the delegation, and one to mind the other minder. Schmidt compares the regime’s stage management and constant surveillance to “The Truman Show, at country scale.”

Her photo-rich blog post contains an image of a DPRK customs form, asking visitors to surrender any “killing devices” and “publishings of all kinds”; the delegation also left its telephones and laptops in China, having been warned they would be confiscated. Schmidt writes that the weather was “very, very cold”, the food “solidly decent”, and the people “unfailingly polite and engaging.”

The delegation was billeted at a Spartan guesthouse on the outskirts of the capital, where they had access to just three television channels: “CNN International, dubbed-over USSR-era films, and the DPRK channel, which was by far the most entertaining. My tolerance level for videos of Kim Jong Un in crowds turns out to be remarkably high.” They also heard just one song during the trip that wasn’t North Korean propaganda, during their flight out of Pyongyang on the national airline, Air Koryo: “It was a remastered version of the Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’.”

Schmidt describes the pastel-shade plasterwork of many of Pyongyang’s buildings as “almost playful.” She also noted more pedestrians than expected on the city’s clean, wide boulevards, including “stylish women in heeled boots and make-up.” On a visit to the mausoleum of the country’s former leader, Kim Jong Il, the delegation was shown “the late Leaders’ cars, train compartments and even a yacht, all preserved in their former glory. Even Kim Jong Il’s platform shoes were on display.” Schmidt was also “delighted to learn that he and I shared a taste in laptops: 15” Macbook Pro.”

At the Kim Il Sung University e-Library, the visitors were shown a room filled with 90 computer stations, each manned by a student. The scene appears to have been purely for show, however. “No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared… not one of them looked up from their desks… They might as well have been figurines.”

The reclusive state has its own national intranet, writes Schmidt, “a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real internet”, to which a select few university students are granted access. Some savvy locals seemed to be au fait with technology, even asking the Google boss about upcoming versions of the firm’s Android operating system. The present North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, recently declared that his country’s ailing economy could be improved by embracing science and technology. Eric Schmidt is said to be working on a book about the power of the internet to counter oppressive governments.

He confirmed the authenticity of his daughter’s post to the Quartz news site, and published his own, more restrained impressions of the country in a post on Google+. “The technology in North Korea is very limited right now,” he wrote. “As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically.”

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