Google unveils new detailed maps of North Korea, and gulags

Posted Jan 29, 2013 by JohnThomas Didymus
Google has released its new maps of North Korea that fill in gaps in its previous maps of the country. The new maps show new details including Pyongyang’s subway stops, gulags, travel routes and landmarks such as Pyongyang's Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
Google map: Pyongyang  North Korea
Google map: Pyongyang, North Korea
©2013 Google
The Washington Post reports that before Google unveiled the new maps, there were a lot of blank spaces in its maps of North Korea, with details of roads, train lines, parks and restaurants missing, although prominently labeled on the maps was the capital city, Pyongyang.
According to the VOA, Jayanth Mysore, senior product manager for Google's Map Maker tool, said in a recent blog posting that the maps were created by a “community of citizen cartographers,” working over several years volunteering information available to them. The Washington Post reports that they worked through an interface known as Google Map Maker that allows users to submit their own data which is fact-checked by other users.
Most of the contributors, according to Google, were South Koreans. Google, however, was not specific about the extent of contribution of "citizen cartographers" living in North Korea
Google's Jayanth Mysore said in the blog post: “For a long time, one of the largest places with limited map data has been North Korea, but today we are changing that. While many people around the globe are fascinated with North Korea, these maps are especially important for the citizens of South Korea, who have ancestral connections or still have family living there."
Among the more interesting features of the new maps are North Korea's secret labor camps, where it is believed more than 100,000 prisoners are held in less than humane conditions for "reeducation." The prisons, some of which reportedly appear large enough to be cities, are highlighted in gray. Some of the gulags outlined on the map include Camp 22 and the Hoeryong Gulag in North Hamgyong. Other significant features of the map are the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, where nuclear tests have reportedly been carried out.
The Huffington Post reports that other significant features of the North Korean landscape on the new maps, beside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are preserved include: "an armory; a theater and adjacent guards' bathroom... the Yodok and Hwasong gulags have little detail."
According to The Washington Post, details of the Hwasong Gulang, although scanty, include a street called Gulag 16 Road, which cuts through the gulag and ends at a train station. Beyond the station, very little is marked.
Google map: Pyongyang  North Korea
Google map: Pyongyang, North Korea
©2013 Google
The new maps come soon after Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea, during which he urged the authorities to open up the country to the Internet. North Koreans are barred from the Internet and millions will not see the new maps. Only a few privileged North Koreans have Internet access. ABC News reports that access to the Internet is strictly restricted and only a few members of the country's elite are authorized to access the Web. The number of users are estimated at a few thousands out of a population of 24 million. The number of registered IP addresses are just a little more than 1,000, compared to 112 million IP addresses in South Korea.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the new Google project is not the first attempt to map the isolated country. According to ABC News, Curtis Melvin, a Ph.D. economics student at George Mason University in Virginia, who runs a blog, the Korean Economy Watch, provided what was previously the most detailed map of North Korea. The map drew information from "online newspapers, Korean TV newscasts, North Korean defectors and Google Earth."
Melvin spent seven years collecting information about rocket launch sites and major sites, including gulags, working in collaboration with 38 North, a blog run by the the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. ABC News reports he said: "After seven years, I have amassed a colossal amount of satellite imagery that has been used to show the development of new factories, expansion of the electricity grid, the spread of markets, new military infrastructure and, unfortunately, apparent changes in the incarceration system."
Melvin was one of the first to point to an error in the new Google map on his blog Monday. He said: “There is no golf course on Yanggak Island," noting it had been destroyed. He cited recent photographs taken by tourists that show that the golf course no longer exists. The Washington Post reports that Google in its blog post acknowledged that the North Korea map information is “not perfect... We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone."
There has been no reaction from North Korean authorities, VOA reports, but Professor Yang Moo-jin at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies believes the authorities in Pyongyang will be upset with Google publishing information about the country's gulags and military bases.