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North Korea is the last place you’d look for clues to the fortunes of Silicon Valley titans Google and Apple. Maybe it’s worth doing so. Google chairman Eric Schmidt is squarely in piñata mode after a widely publicised trip last month to a country that treats its people as if they were objects to be beaten for fun.

Senator John McCain summed up one view of Schmidt and his delegation, calling them “useful idiots”. Pundits complain Schmidt naively played into North Korea’s propaganda machine. About the same time that Schmidt was in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang talking up internet freedom, another high-flying technology executive was in Asia. Tim Cook made the rounds in China, checking on Apple’s factory floor and talking with China Mobile about access to its 710 million wireless subscribers.

The contrast is worth noting. One executive was doing the obvious and honing a formula, while the other was being brave and trying something new. The former is Cook, the latter is Schmidt, whose goodwill tour did put China on the defensive and, more importantly, spurred a dialogue about North Korea’s 24 million people.

Consider the genius of Schmidt joining former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in Pyongyang. The Google chairman was the highest-profile businessman to visit since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in 2011. To Schmidt, it’s up to the public to make the internet work. But first, North Korea’s government needs to get things going, then get out of the way – or risk being left even further behind.

Schmidt could easily be speaking of China there, and I suspect he was. Google pulled out of China in 2010, tired of doing the Communist Party’s dirty work in censoring cyberspace. Headlines from Schmidt’s jaunt had to have been seen in Beijing, and not at all welcomed. The last thing China’s authoritarian regime wants is some US internet billionaire telling it, or its geopolitical satellites, what to do.

It’s also true that Google can’t ignore China’s 564 million internet users forever. The Google guys with their mantra of “don’t be evil” aren’t altruists, and Schmidt’s North Korea trip, made by way of China, may be the company’s first step toward getting back into Asia’s biggest economy. While Cook was looking out for shareholders, Schmidt’s goodwill mission did something that neither the administration of Barack Obama nor George W Bush could manage: make the outrage over North Korea about the pain of its people, not just nuclear weapons and missiles.

US policy towards North Korea is little more than threats, sanctions and browbeating other nations into going along.

This is where key US business leaders can play a role. The news of the past two weeks – another nuclear test may be afoot – shows why Obama is more focused on brinkmanship than outreach. After decades of failure, new approaches are needed.

American soft power might be just the thing. As Obama’s diplomats try to rein in the Kim Dynasty, other US executives could follow Schmidt’s lead and increase interaction. Can’t goodwill missions and future investment deals go hand-in-hand?

Remember, too, that it wasn’t diplomatic and military efforts that toppled governments during the Arab Spring, but information. Getting the internet into North Korea, or liberalising it in China, would do more for reform there than a US carrier fleet. Isolating the Kims has achieved no more than sanctions have against the Castros in Cuba, aside from inflicting privation on the populace. At what point does the US admit a policy doesn’t work and find a new one?

No one is seriously advocating appeasement. Nor should corporate America be rewarding Kim with the opportunity to appear in propaganda photos with the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon. But cultural exchanges might play a positive role in wooing the social-media-age Kim (thought to be 28), said to be in awe of US basketball greats Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

This week, Google revised its Maps formula to add North Korea and offer a rare glimpse of the nation’s vast prison camps. While cartographers have been detailing the Hermit Kingdom’s interior for years, Google is bringing these views to the masses.

It is fine that Apple’s Cook is taking care of his fiduciary responsibilities in north Asia. It’s even better to see one of his peers trying to influence a region that needs something to dream about aside from cool smartphones.


William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.