Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt stands on a balcony at the Grand Peoples Study House overlooking Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Photo: AP/David Guttenfelder)
While Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has taken the opportunity to advocate for North Korea to open itself up to the global Internet, it's his daughter's account of the unusual private trip to the country taken earlier this month that is causing a stir.
Sophie Schmidt went on what was described as a "private, humanitarian" mission to North Korea, which was not supported the U.S. State Department, with her father and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in the first week of January.
On her website detailing the trip titled "Sophie in North Korea," she admits in a blog post called "it might not get weirder than this" that she is an "amateur" when it comes to the country. She calls her thoughts a "straightforward trip report" with no discussion about the meeting, the trips intentions, etc.
"Just some informal observations," Sophie wrote.
Overall, she wrote that she would recommend people visit the country, if they can and if it's not in January when it is exceedingly cold.
"Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw," she continued.
Although they were required to leave "killing devices," cellphones and "publishings of all kinds" at customs, Sophie said they weren't regulated when it came to their cameras, so she has some photographs of her trip.
Here are a few observations that we've picked out from her post (in her words):
- It's like the Truman Show, at a country scale.
- For a country that banned religion, and has sent thousands of practicing Christians to prison camps, the Christmas trees were rather incongruous. When asked, Minder 1 chuckled and offered, "New Year's trees?"
(Photo: Sophie Schmidt)
- Food overall? Solidly decent. Like Korean food, only with less pizzazz and more corn (?).
- Three channels on the TVs: CNN International, dubbed-over USSR-era films, and the DPRK channel, which was by far the most entertaining. My tolerance level for videos of Kim Jong Un in crowds turns out to be remarkably high.
- 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.
- 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. When we asked how old Un had turned (29? 30?), we were told that "Koreans keep track of age differently" than we do. Alright, then.
(Photo: Sophie Schmidt)
- In a fantastic bit of timing, as we exited the train, the station's power cut out. The commuters around us immediately pulled out flashlights, which they presumably carry all the time.
- The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village. [...] 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.
It was students in this room that Sophie said barely moved. She speculated the entire thing could have been a set up display. (Photo: AP/David Guttenfelder)
- Expected to see more flags flying. Didn't expect to see so many glitter barrettes.
Be sure to read more of Sophie's fascinating account of their visit to North Korea here.
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