Good For Google's Schmidt for Visiting North Korea
North Korea watchers aren't asking the right question about Google Inc.'s Eric Schmidt's visit to Pyongyang. It's not why the leader of a company with the slogan "Don't be evil" would journey to the home of arguably the evilest regime anywhere. It's why don't more of his ilk do the same?
For the moment, Schmidt's inclusion in the entourage of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has commentators abuzz. If Richardson is there to secure the release of a U.S. citizen, as many experts believe, why bring along a technology executive? Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about to welcome Internet use, Myanmar-style, to his 23 million people? Is this just a public-relations stunt for the out-of-the-spotlight Richardson?
The real issue is the good that might come from more corporate bigwigs following Schmidt's lead. The highest-profile businessman to set foot in North Korea since Kim succeeded his father just over a year ago, he showed chutzpah ignoring U.S. State Department criticism of his trip. And good for him.
The White House really should be asking what isolating North Korea has achieved. Where has it gotten South Korea or Japan? Decades of sanctions didn't unseat Fidel Castro in Cuba, and yet successive U.S. leaders think the strategy will work someday in Pyongyang. Granted, President Barack Obama has been plenty busy winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with the Arab Spring and handling a hostile Congress at home. But it's time for a new approach toward North Korea's leader.
Let's attack Pyongyang with capitalism as well as military brinksmanship. The Swiss-educated, 20-something Kim has dropped hints he may be very different than his father. He's spoken, for example, about the need for new economic strategies. One is letting Germany's Kempinski AG open one of the world's tallest hotels, a 105-story, pyramid-shaped monstrosity to court more overseas visitors. In his New Year's Day speech, Kim abandoned the usual saber-rattling and called for better relations with South Korea.
No serious person is advocating appeasement. This is very much a trust-but-verify moment, and the White House is right to act cautiously. But just two years ago, few would have believed Myanmar would travel so quickly from pariah state to investment darling. Multinational companies can play a catalyzing role in North Korea. They just need to go there.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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