Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt just got back from a two-week trip to that closed-off place very, very few of us will ever see—North Korea—to promote a free and open Internet among the country's ruling body. (Yeah, good luck with that.) He posted some guarded thoughts yesterday on Google + about how he felt the country was being left behind economically, saying "The North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth."
As for his daughter, Sophie, who also tagged along... Sophie was a little more candid. And since North Korea is such a weird and fascinating place, it's interesting to see what someone's unedited thoughts are about the country. Like how it's pretty much just like that Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show."
Here are some highlights:
It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).
Top Level Take-aways:
Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.
I can't express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill. The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.
[About a passport form] Do note #1 and #6: leave your "killing device" and "publishings of all kinds" at home. Got it.
You could almost forget you were in North Korea in [Pyonyong], until you noticed little things, like the lack of commercial storefronts. No street-level commerce, either. I didn't realize that I hadn't seen any plastic bags yet until I saw one person with a bag of apples and thought it looked out of place.
Our trip coincided with the "Respected Leader" Kim Jong Un's birthday. On that day, the little stalls that dotted the city and sold small sundries had long lines as they distributed treats.
[In an e-library] There were probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.
One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.
They made sure to show us the American-style fast food restaurant, though their timing appeared to be off: the place was shuttered when we arrived. Workers scrambled to put on aprons and turn on the lights.
So weird. I don't think I'll be going there anytime soon. Thankfully, we have an open Internet so you can get the full scoop here.