Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said Thursday it's up to North Korea to shed its self-imposed isolation and allow its citizens to use the Internet and connect with the outside world, or risk remaining way behind other countries.
Schmidt was returning from a private trip to North Korea with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that was not sanctioned by the U.S. government and has been criticized for appearing to boost Pyongyang's profile after its widely condemned rocket launch put a satellite into space last month.
"As the world is becoming increasingly connected," Schmidt said, "their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically. We made that alternative very, very clear."
The nine-member delegation, which also included Jared Cohen, director of the company's Google Ideas think tank, was greeted at the Beijing airport by a throng of reporters at the end of their four-day trip.
"The government has to do something," Schmidt said. "It has to make it possible for the people to use the Internet. It is their choice now. It's in my view time for them to start, or else they will remain behind."
During the trip, Richardson said they also urged Pyongyang to halt all missile and nuclear tests, which have incurred U.N. sanctions, and sought fair treatment for an American who has been detained in North Korea.
Schmidt, CEO of the U.S.-based Internet giant until 2011, has been a vocal proponent of Internet freedom and openness around the world. He and Cohen are publishing a book in April about the power of global connectivity in transforming people's lives, policies and politics.
Cohen doesn't typically accompany Schmidt on Google-sanctioned trips, so his inclusion in the delegation may be a sign that the two men may have mainly been interested in gathering material for their book.
In Pyongyang, Schmidt's group visited a university computer lab and met with students and North Korean officials. They toured the frigid brick building in central Pyongyang that is the heart of North Korea's own computer industry, where Schmidt asked pointed questions about a new homegrown tablet computer as well as its Red Star operating system. He briefly donned a pair of 3-D goggles during the tour of the Korea Computer Center.
Many experts see the country as one of the least connected in the world, where few people have any access to computers, and even those who do are typically able to connect only to a domestic intranet that does not connect with the World Wide Web.
Global broadband Internet is available in North Korea, as well as a 3G mobile network that can't currently connect to the Internet. But few have unrestricted access, though "it would be very easy for them to turn that on," Schmidt said.
The State Department has criticized the trip as "unhelpful" at a time when the U.S. is rallying support for additional U.N. Security Council action against Pyongyang. Schmidt advised President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign and was once considered a potential candidate for a Cabinet-level appointment, though he has repeatedly said that he has no plans to leave Google for a government job.
Conservative U.S. politicians have slammed the Schmidt-Richardson trip, saying it handed North Korea an opportunity to boost its stature internationally and legitimize its repressive government among its people.
Koreas expert Scott Snyder said he expected Pyongyang's propaganda machine to capitalize on the visit.
"It would not be surprising if next week the North Koreans were to air a prime time feature on the Google chairman's trip, with lots of pictures of the delegation visiting premier North Korean facilities and other attractions," said Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations.
Richardson said the message about expanding the use of technology in North Korea was very "well received."
He said the delegation strongly urged the government "to proceed with a moratorium on ballistic missiles and a possible nuclear test" and that they had "very frank discussions" with North Korean officials about the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Richardson said the North Koreans were encouraged by recent statements by the new South Korean leader, President-elect Park Geun-hye, who has said she will make efforts in her five-year term to boost aid and engage with the North.
Richardson said they also expressed concern about an American detained in North Korea, and were told his health was good and that judicial proceedings would start soon. Pae Jun Ho, who is known as Kenneth Bae in his home state of Washington, is a 44-year-old tour operator of Korean descent who was arrested in November in the northern city of Rajin.
"The delegation's trip to North Korea was productive, was successful," Richardson said at the airport in Beijing, adding that the group was invited to return. "We do expect to go back."
There are no major U.S. firms operating in North Korea, which fought against the United States in the Korean War of the 1950s. The foes signed a truce in 1953 to end the fighting, but never a peace treaty, and the two countries still do not have diplomatic relations.
Even if Schmidt wasn't officially representing Google in North Korea, the company stands to benefit if the country's leadership loosens its Internet restrictions. For years, the Mountain View, California, company has pushed for more accessible and affordable Internet connections and Web-surfing devices on the premise that its business ultimately will make more money if people spend more time online.
Associated Press writer Jean Lee in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.