Good for Eric Schmidt. Have to like the name of the project. Perhaps a well chosen one with a double meaning.
But on a serious note this is the kind of creative thinking for influence operations we need. I wonder if the north will use its SA-2s to try to shoot down these balloons?
Google recently revealed a new project that could pose a threat to the regime of Kim Jong Eun. “Project Loon” [http://www.google.com/loon/] uses superpressured helium balloons to provide networked wireless Internet services to inaccessible areas. Last summer Google tested the project in New Zealand, but says that some of the primary beneficiaries could be citizens of closed countries, a category that includes North Korea.
The balloons float 20km up in the stratosphere, where they move with the wind to form a network transmitting a signal that people on the surface can pick up via a special antenna. The balloons are self-contained: high enough not to be damaged by daily weather phenomena or aviation, they run on solar power, and each can survive for 100+ days due to their rugged construction.
If the project were to have a decisive effect on the people of North Korea, Google would thus be remembered as one of the leading protagonists in bringing and end to the Kim dynasty. Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is their intention. Rather, Google pursues radical innovations for their own sake, and takes large, future-orientated gambles; changing the world is a byproduct.
Ironically, one of many things that already make Kim Jong Eun rather uncomfortable is the flying of leaflets into the North suspended beneath far more primitive balloons. The far-reaching power of these anti-regime leaflets should not be underplayed, and nor should their cost:effect ratio. As such, the North Korean regime reacts sensitively to the launching of such leaflets, and cites them as one cause of worsening North-South relations.
However, they are limited in the sense that is hard for them to physically reach people in interior regions of the country, including Pyongyang.
What if Project Loon were to transmit similar content? This would resolve the distance issue at a stroke. The people of North Korea could be receiving many, many leaflets, always unseen. And if the North were to shoot down the balloons, would the problem disappear? The internet-beaming solar-powered balloons are cheap to produce, whereas the cost of shooting them down one by one would be huge. As a result, the regime would be rendered helpless in the face of web-based leaflets raining down upon its head.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt visited North Korea in January 2013, whereupon he criticized the restrictions placed on the Internet in the country. The North Korean side appeared to ignore him. We know not whether Google had North Korea in mind as it pushed forward with its balloon project thereafter. Either way, the power elite in Pyongyang is evidently at pains to disaffirm the value of innovation, and does not recognize the signs of change coming right under their own noses.
* This Guest Column is an abridged version of one that appeared in Korean on January 23rd. Opinions expressed in Guest Columns are not necessarily those of Daily NK.