Parks, monuments & gulags: Google maps North Korea
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Parks, monuments & gulags: Google maps North Korea

Google Maps unveils surprisingly detailed view of the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea is not the unknown land it once was: Defector’s stories are now well-known, photographs and videos from inside the nation are widely spread on the Internet, and the travel industry is expanding all the time. However, the government has kept much tighter controls over its internal details and infrastructure, but that too looks set to change as Google has unveiled its newly detailed map of North Korea.

Previously the Communist country was a literal blank space on the map, dotted only with major cities and county borders. However, as of this morning, Pyongyang is now as detailed as many other world capitals, with parks, streets, museums, and even cinemas now labelled.

The maps are still limited. The further you move away from the Pyongyang the increasingly sparse the plotting becomes. Larger cities, such as Wonsan and Hamhung, feature only landmarks and no road names. It could be said that this is a reflection of the lack of development outside North Korea’s showpiece capital, but more likely it is a symptom of how the new North Korean map was created.

The map is the product of Google’s ‘Map Maker’ tool. This community based tool allows ‘citizen cartographers’ to add and contribute to Google maps. Google’s official site explains: “To build this map, a community of citizen cartographers came together in Google Map Maker to make their contributions such as adding road names and points of interest.” The volunteers act as fact checkers and editors to each other and have been working on this project for several years.

The Map Maker tool is commonly used across Google Maps, but it usually used to build upon or tweak the existing, usually official, country maps. However it the case of North Korea it has very much been built from scratch, and mostly by those outside the country. Google recognises the limitations

“We know this map is not perfect — one of the exciting things about maps is that the world is a constantly changing place. We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone with Google Map Maker.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the expanded service is the plotting of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and Gulags. The North Korean regime and its official mouthpieces the KCNA and Rodong Sinmun have yet to comment, but it may harm whatever progress and goodwill Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt gained on his recent trip to Pyongyang.


Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, takes photographs as he tours a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea earlier this month. Pic: AP.

The maps are of course unlikely to be seen to by the majority of the DPRK’s population. However, it can perhaps be another step towards the demystifying of North Korea, and will now allow many around the globe to catch a glimpse of the nation that is still difficult for most to visit. Google feels it is of particular use to South Koreans looking to understand more about their divided homeland, and perhaps their divided families.

However, it’s not all bad news for North Korea, and they appear to attempting to use the satellite incursion as an opportunity to further spread the word of Kim Jong-Un. The One Free Korea blog reports, a new giant installation reading “Long live Songun Korea’s General Kim Jong Un!” is now visible from space.