Why visit Pyongyang anyway?

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Why visit Pyongyang anyway?

Straight trees often have crooked roots. You can’t judge them just by looking at them. Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit to North Korea reminds us of that truism. In January, the chairman of world’s largest Internet search service spent four days in Pyongyang. Time is money to an international businessman of his caliber. What was the real reason for his visit to the world’s most isolated country? Was he just curious?

The official purpose of his visit was to advocate the importance of a free Internet. Upon returning to Beijing from Pyongyang, he told reporters at the airport that he tried to persuade North Korean officials to get rid of their closed Internet policy, which hinders North Korea’s economic development. He explained that he warned Pyongyang that its policy would only aggravate its isolation as the rest of the world becomes more closely connected on the Internet.

He expressed the same opinion when he spoke in New Delhi last month. It was only natural that the audience was interested in the motive behind his Pyongyang visit as major South Koran television networks and banks had recently suffered cyberattacks allegedly orchestrated by the North. Schmidt said he was heralding the good news about the power of the Internet, adding, “The fastest way to achieve economic growth in the North is to open up the Internet. I did my best to tell them this.” He claimed that he was on an evangelical mission to spread the gospel of Internet freedom.

But was that the sole purpose of his trip?

A few days ago, I heard an interesting story from professor Lim Eul-chul at the University of North Korean Studies, who is knowledgeable about the North’s internal situation. He said that the true purpose of Schmidt’s trip was to seek business opportunities that would take advantage of North Korea’s IT professionals - in other words, using the North Korean IT workforce as a potential replacement for the Indian IT workforce, which is a core planet in the global IT universe. American IT companies have outsourced a considerable amount of software development to India. But its wages have seriously climbed and lately, many Indian companies choose to create their own brands. Therefore, American IT companies are urgently seeking replacements for the Indian professionals.

North Korea’s IT workers are known to be pretty advanced. According to Park Chan-mo - a former POSTEC president and honorary president of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology - software technology in the North is already approaching the level of developed countries. He said that students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology are on par with students at POSTEC. Nosotek, North Korea’s first and only IT startup company invested in by Germans, recently introduced a smartphone game application that was ranked in the top ten in Germany.

Since it was revealed that North Korea was behind the July 2009 DDoS attacks on 35 major Web sites in Korea and the United States, including the Blue House and the White House, Silicon Valley began to pay attention to the North’s IT workforce. According to North Korean defectors with IT backgrounds, Pyongyang has trained more than 12,000 hackers. North Korea has also impressed U.S. businessmen by showing off indigenous science technology to launch a long-range rocket, albeit in a primitive form.

Many American companies are also interested in North Korea’s rich underground resources such as gold, magnesite and rare earth elements. General Electric has allegedly been promoting a plan to participate in gold mining in the North in return for building a thermal power plant. Last year a high-ranking executive from GE actually visited North Korea, although the negotiations have been suspended due to Pyongyang’s long-range missile launches and third nuclear test.

Entrepreneurs seeking opportunities and challenges and taking risks are one of the major driving forces that move the United States. That force sometimes brings down the wall of politics. In the eyes of U.S. businessmen, North Korea may be the last remaining repository of cheap workers and untapped resources. They probably fret that they need to hurry before China takes it all over. While political barriers may be stupendously high at the moment, Washington may someday lower them, strictly based on national interests.

Young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is making a fuss as if he would start a war at any moment. However, a few days ago, the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party adopted measures to promote economic development and nuclear armament as the new line of the Kim regime. If nuclear weapons reduce spending on conventional weapons, the money could be diverted to economic development. Someday, we may envy U.S. businessmen shaking hands and grinning with their counterparts in Pyongyang. We need to be more proactive than simply operating the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North.


*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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