Google Maps' New Target: Secretive North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea may be the world's most shrouded country, but on Tuesday Google Maps lifted the veil just a little, uploading a detailed map of the country complete with street names in the capital.

The new map, built with the help of what Google called "a community of citizen cartographers," provides people who normally visit the site for driving directions with a peek at places they previously only read about, probably in articles about the North's nuclear program. The map of Pyongyang, the capital, shows everything from landmarks -- the tower that celebrates the country's self-reliance doctrine of Juche and the main square where military parades are held -- to hotels, schools and hospitals.

Users can zoom in for photos and even post comments. The map that was on the site until Tuesday was mostly blank.

The posting of the map -- and Google's call for more mapping information on the North from netizens -- focused new attention on the North at a time when the country is locked in a tense standoff with the United States and its allies over tightened sanctions and has promised to conduct a third nuclear test.

Google's initiative came three weeks after its executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt, visited Pyongyang in a highly publicized yet contentious trip organized by Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico. Mr. Schmidt, a proponent of Internet connectivity who likes to describe the Web as the enemy of despots, said he urged North Korean officials he met in Pyongyang to let more North Koreans use the Internet.

The map is still not very detailed in much of the country, though it does include four enormous prison camps, highlighting them in gray shading. Google Maps is unlikely to provide important new information to policy makers and others who already have satellite maps from years of surveillance to depend on. But the crowdsourcing project provides a tool for Internet users anywhere in the world to help identify at least some features in the isolated country that the regime in Pyongyang doesn't want the world to know. (The regime cherishes secrecy to such an extent that its propagandists liked to boast: "When our enemies try to peek into our republic, they only see a fog.")

At the moment, the map released Tuesday is far less detailed than North Korean maps available in South Korean bookstores, or on a digital atlas using Google Earth published on the Web site 38 North.

In recent years, Internet bloggers and activists have relied on Google Earth, and defectors from North Korea, to locate several places believed to be prison camps. In each of the gulags, international human rights groups have said, thousands of political prisoners have been forced into hard labor for crimes like criticizing the ruling Kim dynasty in Pyongyang.

"So far, Google's efforts are largely symbolic," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It won't be easy to make a Google map of North Korea of the kind you see of other countries."

The premise of the crowdsourcing tool called Google Map Maker -- Internet users filling in information about their neighborhood to help update and perfect a map -- is severely limited for North Korea. The country is cut off from the Internet, except for its tiny elite, and even that group's access is controlled.

Google can try to enlist the more than 24,000 North Korean defectors who live in South Korea, one of the world's most wired countries. But most of them come from the north of the country and, given the tight control on people's movements, their knowledge of other parts of North Korea before their defection is limited.

There was no immediate North Korean reaction to Google's announcement on Tuesday.

Google said that although its map of North Korea is incomplete, it could be important to some South Koreans who originated from the North and who could now identify their old home villages.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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