Teenage Daughter of Google Chief Spills The True Story on North Korea Visit: Puts to Shame Free Press, Dad, and U.S. Government
By Nate Thayer
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt may now regret inviting his 19 year old teenage daughter, Sophie Schmidt, along on his world headline grabbing, secretive trip to North Korea last week.
Sophie Schmidt was one of the nine members of the high powered delegation which included her dad, representing the world’s most prominent powerhouse, Google corporation, in the new internet age of borderless, free, uncensored flow of information to the most restricted closed and censored society on earth. Other members included her dad, former U.S. presidential candidate, Ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, and other powerful but very tight lipped hi tech and government types.
Together they have revealed virtually nothing of the purpose, encounters, impressions, and success of the trip to North Korea.
Until teenager Sophie posted a startling frank, detailed, and revealing blog today, accompanied by typical American teenage bluntness and snarky, that blew away the powerful American mucky mucks scripted silence, revealing all the public interest really needed to know.
Now, really, was that so hard?
The quite entertaining and enticing young Ms Schmidt got right to the point.
Titled “It might not get weirder than this”, Sophie’s blog post began with the caveat “ Pro tip: Max browser window (for width), keep scrolling and blame Google Sites (and this two-column structure idea of mine) for limited functionality. Proper slideshow at the end with larger-version photos. Apologies to folks with f’d up layouts” which was followed by a highlighted note before her incisive and insightful musing on the Google delegation 4 day visit began: “Disclaimer: I am a North Korea amateur and can only share what it’s like to be part of a NK-bound delegation. Straightforward trip report here: no discussion of meeting details or intentions–just some observations.”
She began with a photo of the North Korean Custom form to be filled out upon arrival in Pyongyang. “Do note #1 and #6: leave your “killing device” and “publishing’s of all kinds” at home. Got it. We carried a ton of cash (USD) since that was the only way to pay for anything.”
She then detailed the ambience of their surroundings. “We also met our handlers, two men from the Foreign Ministry, whom we gave code names. Unusually, both men had lived in the US, in addition to other countries, as embassy staffers…. How on earth do they reconcile the differences they see between their experience abroad and what they’d always been told?” adding “It was a nine-person delegation in total. We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they’d be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.”
Ms Schmidt then offered a health warning on how much credibility her observations should be accorded: “#1 Caveat: 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).”
Sophie then offered a meteorological assessment and advice for potential visitors who might want to visit the hermit Kingdom. “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.”
The Ms. Schmidt blogged on a general impressionistic overview regarding the delegation representing the name which is synonymous with free and unfettered access to information: “Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference. I can’t think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country’s inner workings–down to the basics of its economy–further serves to reinforce the state’s control. The best description we could come up with: it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale. “
She then offered a food review .
“We stayed at a guesthouse a few kilometers from Pyongyang that was really like a private hotel, in that we were the only guests. Food overall? Solidly decent. Like Korean food, only with less pizzazz and more corn (?).”
This was followed by rating the hotel accommodations:
“We were told well ahead of time to assume that everything was bugged: phones, cars, rooms, meetings, restaurants and who knows what else. I looked for cameras in the room but came up short. But then, why bother with cameras when you have minders? After a day in frigid Pyongyang, I was just thankful it was warm. Long, empty hallways. My father’s reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open. Since we didn’t have cell phones or alarm clocks, the question of how we’d wake up on time in the morning was legitimate. One person suggested announcing ”I’m awake” to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.”
Ms Schmidt followed this with a traffic report and an assessment of the local culture: “People there walk very long distances (miles and miles) in sub-zero temperatures, often in the middle of the road. (Not a problem because there are almost no cars outside the city center.) Conclusion: these people are really, really tough.”
The teenage daughter of the Google chief executive then offered the most empirical and honest observations of the highlight of the world headline grabbing delegation’s visit to Pyongyang—their visit to where North Korean’s access computers and, allegedly, surf the internet.
She posted a picture of North Koreans using computers which was broadcast worldwide by the Associated Press but given absolutely no explanatory commentary, leaving readers wondering whether these were actually North Koreans using the internet, a capability strictly banned in the country.
She captioned the photograph: “The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village” and then posted this observation below: “Inside, we were shown through study rooms like the one above, maybe 60 people diligently at desks. Were they bussed in for our benefit? Were any of them actually reading? All I know is that it. was. freezing.”
She continued with more crucial first hand detail, saying “Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. 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. Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home. When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.”
Then the teenage Ms. Schmidt offered what neither her father or the Associated Press were willing to regarding the technical realities of North Korea in the information age.
“On the tech front: Everything that is accessible is accessible only in special tiers. Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones). North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo’d their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android that had access to the real Internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.”
“What’s so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it’s not like they’re going to export this technology. They’re building products for a market that doesn’t exist.”
“Those in the know are savvier than you’d expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, “When is the next version of Android coming out?”and “Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?” Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you’re under international bank sanctions.”
Ms Schmidt concisely analyzed the trip with remarkable precision and savvy. “They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can’t hope to keep it out. Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we’ll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.”
She then could not help herself by suppressing her innate teenage snarkiness by concluding her blog with the comment “We can leave, really? Oh, thank Kim Jong Un!”
“No, really, thank him, because it was only with his expert instruction and inspirational vision that I was able to make this slideshow.
“I mean, really: how lucky are they that their new Leader turns out to be a nuclear technology expert, genius computer scientist and shrewd geopolitical strategist? That guy is good at everything.”
Ms Schmidt did a stellar job in representing her country and the new information age, not to mention teenagers everywhere.
And she put to shame the head of the world’s most powerful technology entity, represented by her dad, the U.S. government politicians, represented by Bill Richardson, and the Free Press, represented by the Associated Press, all of whom didn’t have the sense, integrity, and honesty to just cut to the chase and get to the nut of the matter.
If their was a combination Pulitzer prize for citizen journalists, Sophie Schmidt has my nomination.
I suspect that Google head Eric Schmidt is, like fathers of teenage daughters everywhere, both very proud and very exasperated with young Sophie Schmidt tonight.
But I, for one, want to personally thank her for being the first person to substantively inform me what the Google delegations trip to North Korea was really like. Plus, she is very cute.
Now really, was that so hard?