When former New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson made yet another of his many trips to North Korea, bringing with him Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, I was skeptical than anything good would come of it. North Korea has a long record of turning to its own advantage any overtures from the Free World, official or not. From former President Jimmy Carter to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, from Bush Administration envoy Chris Hill to the New York Philharmonic, from the travels of American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker to the more than half dozen forays by Richardson himself, these overtures to North Korea have resulted chiefly in American concessions, to which the Pyongyang totalitarian Kim-dynasty regime has replied with such stuff as ballistic missile and nuclear tests, munitions and missile traffic with Middle East trouble-makers including Iran, a refusal to render up all abducted citizens of other countries, and the continuing grotesque repression of North Korea’s own people.
About the best that can be said, and it is not a happy message, is that when Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang in 2009 — upon the insistence of the Kim regime — North Korea did allow him to bring home two American employees of Al Gore’s Current TV channel (that was before Gore sold out to Al Jazeera) who had been imprisoned and were facing horrific sentences for the blunder of trespassing from China into North Korea. Clinton’s visit, which included posing for a photo-op dignifying the late Kim Jong Il with the company of a favor-seeking former leader of the Free World, was effectively the payment of a ransom demanded by North Korea.
In sum, the visit of yet another high-profile delegation to Pyongyang — whether official or not — did not bode well. If either Richardson or Google’s Eric Schmidt achieved some marvelous breakthrough with this journey, we have yet to hear about it. But this latest Richardson expedition did produce one surprise. — the best thing ever to emerge from a celebrity trip to North Korea. Google’s Schmidt brought with him his teenage daughter, Sophie. She turns out to be a worldly young woman with a flair for photography, keen observation, and wry humor. She has now posted a travelogue, sophieinnorthkorea, which with photos and commentary, under the caption “It might not get weirder than this,” conveys the kind of gritty reality that most big name delegations don’t tell you about. Starting with the note that the group had no interactions with any non-state-approved North Koreans, and everywhere they went, apart from the bizarre state guest house, it was freezing. The buildings had no heat. They were never far from their two minders “(2, so one can mind the other).” In a leading library, so cold you could see your breath, they were offered a glimpse of some 90 people seated at desks, staring fixedly at computers, and doing… nothing. And Sophie brings us this marvelous summary of some of the developments available to at least some members of the elite, on the tech front: “North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.”
What’s special about this is not so much that there is news to be found in these observations — most of the totalitarian details here, possibly all, have been reported before (though I don’t think I’ve read anywhere else about Kim Jong Il’s beloved 15″ Macbook Pro being displayed beside his embalmed corpse). But this account comes from someone who went not as a lowly reporter, but as a member of a celebrity group whose doings were sure to get plenty of attention — and instead of coming home with canned statements and hedged diplomatic pronouncements, she told it like it was. Good going, Sophie. Here it is again, sophieinnorthkorea. The only thing I’d add is, when you look through it, keep in mind that the government that runs this horror show has also been making and testing nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles that could be capable of reaching, say, California.