Google's Eric Schmidt plans to visit North Korea

Schmidt is expected to join a diplomatic trip to the isolated nation

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will join a humanitarian trip to North Korea that may take place as early as this month.

"Chairman Schmidt's trip is completely a personal-related visit and it involves no business plan," said a spokeswoman for a South Korean government agency with knowledge of the matter. Schmidt's trip was first reported Thursday by the Associated Press in Seoul.

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Schmidt will travel with Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and former governor of New Mexico, and Richardson's longtime advisor Tony Namkung, according to media reports.

A Google spokesman said the company will not comment on the personal travel of executives. No further details of the trip were revealed.

One goal of the trip may be to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen the North Korean government recently said it is holding in custody, suggested Victor Cha, senior advisor and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

It is an intriguing idea that the world's most reclusive state is about to host an Internet company executive who is an avid advocate of borderless information, Cha said in a posting to the CSIS website.

"If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development," he said.

Access to information technology remains tightly controlled in North Korea, with only an elite class able to connect to uncensored Internet content. However, there are signs that mobile phone use has risen and that the country's intranet has expanded, said Scott Thomas Bruce, an expert in East Asian security at the East-West Center, in an October study on IT in North Korea (PDF).

The new young leader Kim Jong-un sees modern technology as a way to boost the country's economy, he said.

3G mobile phones were first introduced to the isolated state in 2008 through a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom. In February the country's only commercial 3G network, Koryolink, topped one million subscribers, according to North Korea Tech blog.

A cell phone costs about US$14 monthly, making it too expensive for the average North Korean, where the GDP per person is less than $2,000 a year, according to Bruce.

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