The most secretive state in today’s world, North Korea has been difficult to map and thus presented as mostly vast unpopulated green areas on publically available maps, including Google Maps. That was before, but it all changed when Google enlisted the help of “citizen cartographers” to collect data on the country’s infrastructure and put as many objects on the map as possible. This includes towns, roads, “gulags” (concentration camps) and even nuclear test facilities. The effort had been continuing for several years and the results were finally made available to the public in January of this year.
What we see on Google Maps for North Korea today is vastly different from what we saw only months ago, and is probably the most precise map of the country available to the wide public today. Project participants, who submitted data to Google, accompanied their submissions with explanatory info and even descriptive names for certain places that may not even have a name known to the country’s general population. An example would be the “Nuclear Test Road” that goes deep into the mountains and stops not far from a group of buildings mapped with the name of a “Nuclear Test Facility”. One can easily guess that these roads are unlikely to have signs up with these names written on them, and it is very likely that they don’t have any names at all and are unknown to many North Korean residents. The map also uncovers a number of concentration camps that are officially referred to as “re-educational facilities”, some of which are notorious for never releasing any prisoners, dead or alive.
Google notes that the maps are still a work in progress and are not perfect. Internet users can edit them through the Google Map Maker, where anyone closely familiar with an area can review other people’s edits or add their own details. The role of this tool for mapping North Korea is hard to overestimate, since the country is pretty much closed to outside visitors and is not exactly a place where Google could send its Street View Cars. Any topographical data on the area is not easy to obtain and therefore is more valuable than anything else Google Map Maker is used for.
While the new detailed maps satisfy the world’s curiosity on this closed country, they are more important to the people of South Korea, many of whom still have relatives in the North and suffer from not being able to get any information on how things are with their northern neighbor. And sadly, the people who could benefit from the detailed map the most are not going to be able to see it at all, since North Korea residents have no Internet access and cannot use Google.