Google Inc's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, one of the highest-profile leaders of the U.S. technology industry, will travel to North Korea on a private trip this year, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
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 who has in the past helped negotiate the release of Americans held by the reclusive state.
News of the visit, which AP said might take place as soon as this month, comes after Pyongyang detained Korean American tourist Kenneth Bae last month, accusing him of unspecified crimes against the state.
It was unclear whom Schmidt would meet or what his agenda might be.
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 on company business.
"We do not comment on personal travel," spokeswoman Samantha Smith said when asked about the AP report.
A representative for Richardson said he was currently out of the country with his family and declined to comment further.
The visit would make Schmidt one of the most prominent American businessmen ever to visit the impoverished country.
Schmidt, who handed the CEO reins at Google to co-founder Larry Page in 2011, has raised his public profile lately, hitting the speech and television circuits and commenting frequently on global Internet issues.
He has also co-authored a book that is scheduled for release in April. " The New Digital Age", written w ith former U.S. state department official Jared Cohen, will address how the Internet and technology can drive social, political and economic change.
Schmidt is also Google's main political and government relations representative, and has been a prominent supporter of U.S. President Barack Obama.
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.
"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.
"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.
This week, the North's leader Kim Jong-un called for an end to confrontation with South Korea, with which the country is technically still at war. His New Year's address was the first in 19 years by a leader of North Korea, which has no diplomatic ties with the United States.
But analysts say the comments from the 29-year-old who came to power after his father died about a year ago did not necessarily signal a substantial policy shift, as Pyongyang has extended olive branches to its far wealthier neighbor in the past.
Internet access is largely restricted, even in Pyongyang, the capital, to all but the most influential officials. Media content is also rigidly policed, although 3G cellphone use is said to be expanding rapidly.
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.
"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.
© Thomson Reuters 2012