Until now, North Korea was pretty much a blank canvas to users of Google’s “Map Maker”, which creates maps from data that is provided by the public and fact-checked in a similar process to that used by Wikipedia.
“For a long time, one of the largest places with limited map data has been North Korea. But today we are changing that,” Jayanth Mysore, a Senior Product Manager at Google Map Maker said in blog posting yesterday.
Mysore said the North Korea section had been completed with the help of a “community of citizen cartographers” working over a period of several years.
“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,” he added.
With the two countries still technically at war, decent maps of the North are almost impossible to come by in South Korea.
Ironically, the people least able to benefit from the Google publication are the North Koreans themselves, who live in one of the most isolated and highly censored societies on the planet.
The North has a domestic Intranet, but it is cut off from the rest of the world, allowing its very limited number of users to exchange state-approved information and little more.
Access to the full-blown Internet is for the super-elite only, meaning a few hundred people or maybe 1,000 at most, experts estimate.
The Google version offers a detailed map of the capital Pyongyang, showing hospitals, subway stops and schools.
Outside the capital, the detail is sketchier, but noticeable on an overview of the country are a series of city-sized, grey-coloured areas which, when zoomed in on, are identified as sprawling re-education camps.
As many as 2,00,000 people are estimated to be detained in the North’s vast gulag system, many under a guilt-by-association system that punishes those related to someone perceived as an enemy of the state.
Google has helped cast a light on the location of these camps before, through its popular Google Earth satellite imagery service.
Groups and individuals involved with human rights research on North Korea have used the satellite pictures to confirm the location of known camps and uncover the existence of new ones.