North Korea watchers were scratching their heads Thursday as word spread that Google (GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was planning to visit that country, even as the U.S. State Department expressed its displeasure and Google indicated Schmidt was not traveling there on company business.

The irony of such a visit is downright tantalizing: A Silicon Valley tech icon and one of the world's most outspoken advocates of global online access drops in on a brutal regime wielding the world's most restrictive Internet policies. To have the Obama administration then distance itself from Schmidt's trip and publicly criticize it adds yet another layer of intrigue to a global drama.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that Schmidt and Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and a diplomatic troubleshooter who last visited Pyongyang in 2010, would be traveling as private citizens, not representatives of the U.S. government.

"Frankly, we don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful," Nuland told reporters, citing North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket in December. "They are well aware of our views."

News reports said Schmidt, a top figure in the U.S. technology industry and a key executive at the world's leading search engine company, could visit as early as this month. But they said it was unclear who he would meet with or what his agenda might be. Some reports suggested the trip was part of a humanitarian mission led by Richardson; others said the North Koreans might hand over detainees to the delegation as they've done in the past.


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Geoffrey See, head of a nongovernmental organization called Choson Exchange that encourages business education and exchange with North Korea, told NK News that Schmidt "has long had a fascination with (North Korea) and foreign policy issues. Google's mission is to provide information access, and North Korea is a country where increased information access, if done legally and officially, could transform education and commerce in the country.

"This trip,'' said See, "is likely to be a private attempt at restarting dialogue, with the aim of having commercial and technical exchanges between the U.S. and the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) play a greater role in defining the bilateral relationship.''

When asked about the reports, Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith said, "We do not comment on personal travel," suggesting the trip would not be for company business.

The story has triggered a lively conversation among North Korea observers about the motivation of the man who helped lead Google's ascent from a fledgling California startup to a global technology powerhouse.

"There's an obvious irony in Google's executive chairman visiting a country where Internet access is severely limited and available only to a few select members of the elite,'' said Dan Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center. "North Korea is the polar opposite of the open society Google is supposedly championing, so it's a bit difficult to know what to make of this.''

In discussions with his fellow scholars, Sneider has heard a wide range of possible reasons for the trip.

"Maybe there's a humanitarian purpose to this,'' he said. "That's possible and legitimate. But Schmidt has to be wary of being used by the North Koreans as giving some kind of gloss to the regime's own attempts to portray itself as a country pursuing science and technology.''

North Korea said its Dec. 12 rocket launch put a weather satellite in orbit, but critics say it was aimed at nurturing the kind of technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.

"I don't know what his understanding of North Korea is,'' Sneider said of Schmidt. "Maybe his purpose is to try and help open it up, which is fine. But there's also a fine line here that he has to walk, and he has to be very, very careful.''

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.