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S. Korea confirms Google chairman's N. Korea visit

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt speaks at a press conference in Seoul, September 27, 2012
Google chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at a press conference in Seoul, September 27, 2012. The US State Department criticized Thursday a trip by Schmidt and senior colleagues to visit North Korea's isolated totalitarian regime.

South Korea confirmed Thursday that Google chairman Eric Schmidt was planning a visit to North Korea, but was unable to comment on the reason for a trip that has sparked criticism from Washington.

"We are aware that he is planning a personal visit," South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young told a regular press briefing.

Cho said Seoul was "not aware" of either the timing or the reason for Schmidt's trip to Pyongyang.

"We know of Schmidt's visit to the North only as a private visit. So there is no specific comment to be made from our government," he added.

Google has so far refused officially to confirm the visit, which was reported by the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal as being part of a humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.

The US State Department criticised the visit, stressing that no American officials were accompanying the "private" mission.

"Frankly we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful... in light of recent actions by (Pyongyang)," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, referring to North Korea's widely condemned long-range rocket launch last month.

Pyongyang defended the launch as a purely scientific mission aimed at placing a satellite in space, but the international community saw it as a disguised ballistic missile test that flagrantly violated UN resolutions.

Nuland said that Schmidt and Richardson would be travelling in an "unofficial capacity" and "they are not carrying any messages from us."

Richardson has been to North Korea a number of times in the past 20 years and has been involved in negotiating the release of US citizens detained in the country.

He was last in Pyongyang in 2010 when he met North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator in an attempt to ease tensions after the North shelled a South Korean border island.

Reports of the latest mission emerged just weeks after North Korea confirmed it had arrested a US citizen of Korean descent and said he would be formally prosecuted for unspecified crimes against the state.

In the past, Pyongyang has agreed to hand over detainees to high-profile delegations led by the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, and some observers suggested it may have specifically requested Schmidt's participation.

North Koreans are largely isolated from external news and information sources and very few citizens have access to a computer, let alone the Internet.

Google is present in neighbouring China, where it has long struggled with government censors. In 2010 it effectively shut down its Chinese search engine, re-routing mainland users to its uncensored site in Hong Kong.

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