Earlier this week, news came out that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was planning a trip to North Korea. He would reportedly be travelling with New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.
The subject came up in a press briefing with the U.S. State Department on Thursday.
Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "With regard to the trip, we are obviously aware of the trip that has been announced for Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Governor Richardson. As you know, they are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity. They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions."
Nuland later clarified that Google had not announced the trip, but that it was made public in the press (the AP initially ran the story). She also added that the Department doen't think the timing is helpful "in light of recent actions by the D.P.R.K., obviously," specifying that she is referring to a recent missile launch.
When asked if the Department expressed its views to them, Nuland said, "They are well aware of our views."
When asked if she thinks it is possible for Google to do business in North Korea legally, Nuland said, "Well, obviously, without knowing what might be planned, et cetera, Google, like all U.S. companies, are subject to the restrictions under U.S. law."
When asked if she would be happy to see Google help North Korea to expand its Internet access to the global community, Nuland responded, "Well, obviously we support Internet freedom around the world. We support the right of all people to have access to the Internet, and we oppose government restrictions on that wherever they are found. That said, all U.S. companies are subject to the U.S. sanctions regime with regard to the D.P.R.K."
Part of Schmidt's role as Executive Chairman is government outreach, so while he may be going to North Korea as a private citizen, it's highly likely that he is also going as a representative of Google, which has historically maintained a clear position on an open Internet - something unavailable to the overwhelming majority of North Korean citizens.
A few months ago, Schmidt traveled to South Korea, where he danced Gangnam Style.