SAN FRANCISCO Google Inc's (GOOG.O) executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, one of the highest-profile leaders of the U.S. technology industry, will travel to North Korea this year, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
Schmidt's visit, which AP said might take place as soon as this month, comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called this week for an end to confrontation with South Korea, with which the country is technically still at war.
It was unclear whom Schmidt will meet or what his agenda might be, the AP reported. Internet access is largely restricted, even in Pyongyang, the capital, to all but the most influential officials of the reclusive state. Media content is also rigidly controlled, although basic 3G cellphone use is said to be rapidly expanding.
Google did not directly respond to a question about whether Schmidt was going to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, although a spokeswoman's response suggested a visit would not be for company business.
"We do not comment on personal travel," spokeswoman Samantha Smith said when asked about the AP report.
Schmidt is Google's main political and government relations representative, and has also been a prominent supporter of President Barack Obama.
Google famously espouses a "do no evil" philosophy and campaigns for Internet freedom. It pulled its search service from China in 2010, relocating it to Hong Kong because it said it could not conform with Beijing's censorship requirements.
Last year, the company flew in North Korean defectors from Seoul for a panel discussion at a summit it hosted focused on global illicit networks.
Schmidt himself is penning, with former U.S. state department official Jared Cohen, a book due in April called "The New Digital Age." It will address how the Internet and technology can empower people and drive fundamental social, political and economic change.
"Perhaps the most intriguing part of this trip is simply the idea of it. The restricted control of information lies at the heart of the DPRK state and yet it is about to host one of the West's greatest facilitators of borderless information flows," said Victor Cha, a senior adviser and Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If Google is the first small step in piercing the information bubble in Pyongyang, it could be a very interesting development," Cha wrote on the center's website on Wednesday.
Schmidt's visit will make him one of the most prominent American businessmen to ever visit the country.
The AP cited two people familiar with his plans as saying the ex-Google CEO will join a private group led by former United Nations Ambassador and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a frequent visitor to North Korea.
Their visit will occur during a sensitive time politically.
Impoverished North Korea raised tensions in the region last month by launching a long-range rocket it said was aimed at putting a satellite in orbit, drawing international condemnation.
Pyongyang, which considers the North and South one country and regularly vilifies the United States, is banned from testing missile or nuclear technology under United Nations sanctions imposed after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear weapons tests.
But analysts say the comments from Kim did not necessarily signal a substantial policy shift, as Pyongyang has extended olive branches to its far wealthier neighbor in the past.
It also comes on the heels of North Korea's announcement last month that it had detained Korean-American tourist Kenneth Bae, accusing him of crimes against the state. Richardson has helped negotiate the release of detained Americans in the past.
According to the country's laws, the punishment for hostile acts against the state is five to 10 years of hard labour.
"Richardson has had a history of trying to jump-start dialogue at low points in the U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks. He is a well-known quantity to North Koreans and does have credibility with them," Cha wrote.
Kim's New Year's address this week was the first in 19 years by a leader of North Korea, which has no diplomatic ties with the United States.
The 29-year-old succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011 of what North Korean media described as a heart attack brought on by overwork.
Google is a major partner of South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) via its Android mobile software. (Reporting By Edwin Chan; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Andre Grenon)