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Detained American, Internet freedom on agenda as Google boss visits North Korea

Kim Kwang Hyon / AP

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is interviewed by journalists after arriving at Pyongyang International Airport in North Korea on Monday.

Google Executive Chairman Eric E. Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson arrived in North Korea on Monday to begin a controversial private mission that includes an effort to secure the release of an imprisoned American tourist.

The prisoner, Kenneth Bae, is a 44-year-old Korean-American who was detained last month. He was in a group of five tourists who visited the northeast city of Rajin, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said last month, citing a report by the Kookmin Ilbo newspaper. Bae entered North Korea on Nov. 3.


North Korea: Detained tourist 'admitted his crime'

Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has made numerous trips to North Korea. Before Monday's trip, he said: "We are going to ask about the American who's been detained -- a humanitarian private visit."

David Guttenfelder / AP

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, center, arrives at Pyongyang International Airport in North Korea for a controversial visit on Monday.

"We'll meet with North Korean political leaders," Richardson told The Associated Press. "We'll meet with North Korean economic leaders, military. We'll visit some universities. We don't control the visit. They will let us know what the schedule is when we get there."

The former governor also said the delegation would try to "lay the groundwork for him coming home," the AP reported. "We're going to try to inquire about the status. ... I heard from his son who lives in Washington state, who asked me to bring him back. I doubt we can do it on this trip."

US cool to Schmidt's trip to North Korea

Schmidt did not respond to requests for comment. But Richardson gave at least a hint about Schmidt's purpose for the trip to the country where the Internet, like most other things, is strictly regulated.

"This is not a Google trip, but I'm sure he's interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect," Richardson told the AP. "So this is why we are teamed up on this." He did not elaborate on what he meant by the "social media aspect."

The trip comes a month after North Korea launched a rocket to put a satellite into space. The reclusive state continues work on its nuclear testing facilities, according to satellite imagery, potentially paving the way for a third nuclear bomb test.

PhotoBlog: Thousands celebrate rocket launch

The delegation comprised Schmidt, his daughter, Richardson and Google executive Jared Cohen, according to South Korean news media, and it arrived in Pyongyang on a flight from Beijing.

The mission has been criticized by the White House because of the sensitivity of the timing. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and the isolated and impoverished state remains technically at war with South Korea.

South Korea is in the midst of a transition to a new president who will take office in February, while Japan, another major U.S. ally in the region, has a new prime minister.

North Korean leader offers olive branch

A U.S. official said the trip's timing was particularly bad from the Obama administration's point of view because it comes as the U.N. Security Council ponders how to respond to North Korea's Dec. 12 rocket launch.

"We are in kind of a classical provocation period with North Korea. Usually, their missile launches are followed by nuclear tests," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

NBC News' John Newland, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

David Guttenfelder / AP

In this March 9, 2011, photo, a girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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