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Google chief's visit to North Korea raises eyebrows

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 6:46 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Google chief Eric Schmidt's plan to visit North Korea has put the Obama administration in the awkward position of opposing a champion of Internet freedom who's decided to engage with one of the most intensely censored countries.

The administration is wary for a reason. It fears that Schmidt's trip could give a boost to North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, just when Washington is trying to pressure him.

It was only last month when North Korea launched a long-range rocket in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The United States and its allies are seeking harsher penalties against the reclusive communist government. That effort is proving difficult because of resistance from China, a permanent member of the council. Beijing probably worries that its troublesome ally could respond to any new punishment by conducting a nuclear test.

American officials also are concerned that the high-profile visit could confuse American allies in Asia and suggest a shift in U.S. policy as the administration prepares to install a new secretary of State to succeed Hillary Clinton.

An imminent change of government in South Korea, a close U.S. friend, is raising questions about whether the two countries can remain in lockstep in their dealings with the North. Newly elected leader Park Geun-hye is expected to seek a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea when she takes up the presidency in February.

That helps to explain why the State Department, which has been a vigorous advocate of social media freedoms around the world, particularly last year during the Arab Spring, made clear it was displeased by the planned “private, humanitarian” visit by Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Their trip is expected this month.

“We don't think the timing of the visit is helpful, and they are well aware of our views,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

Richardson, a seasoned envoy and a former ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday that the State Department should not be nervous.

Richardson said he would raise with North Korea the matter of an American detained last month on suspicion of committing unspecified “hostile” acts against the state.

Schmidt, Richardson said, was traveling as a private citizen. But the trip raises questions about whether Google has plans for North Korea.

Schmidt, the company's executive chairman, is a staunch advocate of global Internet access and the power of connectivity in lifting people out of poverty and political oppression.

Richardson has been to North Korea at least a half-dozen times since 1994, including two trips to negotiate the release of detained Americans.

Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press.

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