Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, authors of the book "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Businesses," opened up about visiting one of the most repressive societies on the planet, Kim Jong-un's North Korea.
"I came to a view of North Korea that currently it runs pretty much like the whole country is a military," Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, told msnbc's Andrea Mitchell Thursday. "From that perspective, there's always a threat."
Schmidt and Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, visited the impoverished communist nation over four days in January with a nine-person delegation including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
"We tried to make the argument that they cannot survive economically if they don't open up a little bit," Schmidt told Mitchell. "We just don't know what they'll do with that message."
About one million North Koreans have cell phones, and most are 3G-capable. Yet data service is not available.
"There's an unfiltered Internet connection," Schmidt said of their visit to the Korea Computer Center. "They have tablets. They have smartphones. They just hog all the best connectivity for a small number of people that are running the country, which from our perspective is the new corruption when societies should be online."
Schmidt and Cohen talked about trying to meet with Kenneth Bae, the 44-year-old American citizen who was arrested under murky charges last November and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor this week.
"I think the situation is horrific," Schmidt told Mitchell.
"When we tried to make the case to at least get a chance to speak with him in Pyongyang and have them bring him down to the capital, the North Korean response to us, well, the State Department came out against your visit, so you don't have consular authority," Cohen told Mitchell. "And, of course, we were there with phones that didn't work, no Internet connectivity. So our response to them was, since you actually seem to have access to the Internet and the media, maybe you could tell us what the State Department said, which kind of reveals exactly the information blackout that this place is experiencing."
The State Department criticized Schmidt, Cohen and Richardson's January trip, just weeks after Pyongyang restarted antagonistic military action by launching a long-range rocket on December 12.
"We don't think the timing of the visit is helpful, and they are well aware of our views," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Schmidt told Mitchell Thursday that he would "caution people about speculating" over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's endgame. "Even though this leader was Western-educated, the tools of oppression are very strong."
"They were very careful not to tip their hand to us as to what they were going to do and open up the Internet," Schmidt said. His and Cohen's book argues that in the next decade, 5 billion new people are going to connect to the Internet, mostly from developing nations. "All they have to do is turn on the Internet and that country is going to get a lot better," Schmidt said.