PYONGYANG, North Korea A private delegation including Google's Eric Schmidt is urging North Korea to allow more open Internet access and cellphones to benefit its citizens, the mission's leader said Wednesday in the country with some of the world's tightest controls on information.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday that his nine-member group also called on North Korea to put a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests that have prompted U.N. sanctions and asked for fair and humane treatment for an American citizen detained there.
The visit has been criticized for appearing to hijack U.S. diplomacy and boost Pyongyang's profile after North Korea's latest, widely condemned rocket launch. Richardson has said has said the delegation is on a private, humanitarian trip.
Schmidt, the executive chairman of the U.S.-based Internet giant Google, is the highest-profile American business executive to visit North Korea since leader Kim Jong Un took power a year ago.
On Wednesday, Schmidt toured the frigid quarters of the brick building in central Pyongyang that is the heart of North Korea's own computer industry. He asked pointed questions about North Korea's new tablet computers as well as its Red Star operating system, and he briefly donned a pair of 3-D goggles during a tour of the Korea Computer Center.
Schmidt has not said publicly what he hopes to get out of his visit to North Korea. However, he has been a vocal proponent of Internet freedom and openness, and is publishing a book in April with Google Ideas think tank director Jared Cohen about the power of global connectivity in transforming people's lives, policies and politics.
Richardson told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview in Pyongyang that his delegation was bringing a message that more openness would benefit North Korea. Most in the country have never logged onto the Internet, and the authoritarian government strictly limits access to the World Wide Web.
"The citizens of the DPRK (North Korea) will be better off with more cellphones and an active Internet. Those are the ... messages we've given to a variety of foreign policy officials, scientists" and government officials, Richardson said.
The four-day trip, which began Monday, is taking place at a delicate time in U.S.-North Korean relations. Less than a month ago, North Korea shot a satellite into space on a long-range rocket, a launch widely celebrated in Pyongyang but condemned by Washington and others as a banned test of missile technology.
The State Department criticized the trip as "unhelpful" at a time when the U.S. is rallying support for U.N. Security Council action.
Spokesman Peter Velasco said from Washington that he did not believe the delegation had been in contact with U.S. officials since they arrived in Pyongyang.
However, Richardson said the delegation has pressed the North Koreans for a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests.
In 2006 and 2009, North Korea followed up similar launches with nuclear tests. Pyongyang is believed to be working on mastering technology that would allow it to mount a nuclear device on a long-range rocket capable of striking the United States.
Richardson also said the delegation is pushing for "fair and humane treatment" of an American, Kenneth Bae, now in North Korean custody on suspicion of committing "hostile" acts against the state.
The group also has urged government officials and scientists to offer more cellphones and to open up the Internet to the North Korean people, he said.
North Korea has exercised strict control over its population of 24 million since it was founded by Kim Il Sung in 1948, including tight rules on the flow of information and close monitoring of the people's interaction with the outside world.
But as the Asian nation's tiny economy has languished in its isolation, the government has sought in recent years to turn its economy around by carefully and cautiously reaching out to foreign nations - primarily neighboring China and Southeast Asian allies - for help.