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Google boss opens North Korea dialogue -- but no US prisoner release

Adrian Bradshaw / EPA

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt (l) and former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson speak to reporters as they arrive at Beijing Capital Airport on Thursday. Schmidt and Richardson had flown from Pyongyang, North Korea where had been on a three day unofficial visit.

BEIJING – American detainee Kenneth Bae remained in North Korea Thursday after a controversial visit by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson failed to secure his release.

The pair told reporters at a media briefing at Beijing's airport that they had not been able to meet Korean-American Bae, who is charged with unspecified crimes against the secretive state.

However, they were confident their calls for greater Internet freedom for ordinary citizens had been “well received” by the Pyongyang regime.

“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world," said Schmidt, who added that not opening up would "make it harder for them to catch up economically. We made that alternative very, very clear."

Richardson said the four-day visit had three central themes: a call for North Korea to embrace a moratorium on ballistic missiles and nuclear tests, the release of Bae and a call for the isolated country to increase their usage of the Internet.

During the visit, Schmidt and Google Ideas think tank director Jared Cohen met with North Korean scientists and software engineers who reportedly peppered the two with questions about the Internet and technology development.

“Once the Internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do something,” said Schmidt. “They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government in North Korea has not yet done.”

“It’s their choice now and time in my view to start or they’ll remain behind,” he said.

The purpose of the Google Chairman’s visit had been speculated on by North Korea watchers in recent weeks, but Richardson was quick to credit Schmidt with the biggest success of the trip: the opening of a new level of unilateral dialogue between scientists in the two countries.

“A new dialogue on technology with scientists and software engineers is very important and that was started,” said Richardson of Google’s influence on the trip. “There was a very positive reaction to Dr. Schmidt and his team in North Korea.”

Missile dialogue
Richardson was also confident that progress had been made in improving dialogue on tensions on the Korean peninsula over North Korea’s recent missile launches and rumored nuclear test.

“The delegation had a series of very frank discussions with North Korean officials,” said Richardson. “We’re concerned with the current level of tension in the Peninsula.”

The former governor was heartened to hear that the North Koreans were “anxious to improve their relationship with the United States” and also noted that they “were encouraged by the recent statements of the new South Korean president.”

Still, Richardson was quick to challenge North Korea’s contention that last year’s missile tests were science-based and peaceful in purpose. “I must say, I personally disagree, I don’t think it's science-based and it is a violation of the United Nations moratorium on missiles,” he said.

Google executive Eric Schmidt visits the secretive country despite his receiving criticism from the White House. NBC's Frances Kuo reports.

Richardson’s nine-person delegation had been planning to travel to the reclusive state last month, but postponed the trip to January after North Korea announced its intentions to conduct a controversial rocket test.

The United States and its regional allies in Asia have been pushing for some sort of combination of economic and political sanctions against North Korea for these continued long-range missile tests and viewed the Richardson visit as unproductive toward that.

On Monday State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reaffirmed the administrations’ disapproval of the trip, telling reporters that, “the trip is ill-advised.”

“We think that both sides need to move in new directions,” Richardson told reporters today. “We think that it’s important that the North-South dialogue be revived. We think that it’s important that the United States and North Korea start having some positive bilateral discussions. We need dialogue, not confrontation on the peninsula.”

Bae still in detention
Despite the delegation’s success in improving dialogue, Richardson was unsuccessful in securing the release of American, Kenneth Bae, who remains in North Korean prison after he was arrested in the northeastern city of Rajin last November.

Asked by NBC News on Bae’s current status, Richardson said that while he was unable to visit the 44-year old tourist, he had been assured by North Korean officials that his legal rights and personal well-being would be protected.

"We pushed to make sure that there were strong protections for Kenneth

Bae both in the judicial process and personally,” said Richardson, “another encouraging development was that they told me the judicial precedence would happen soon."

Richardson also said that a letter from Bae’s son would be passed on to him in prison.

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