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Citizen cartographers’ help Google map North Korea

Courtesy of Google Maps

North Korea has been one of the most secretive regimes in modern history, and even some people living within miles of the border have limited information about this isolated country – until now.
As a child, Megan Ra lived just outside Seoul, South Korea. She has memories of growing up and going to school in South Korea but never learned anything about North Korea, or its capital city of Pyongyang, only about 120 miles away.
“In school we didn’t learn anything about North Korea because we didn’t have any information about the country,” Ra said.
Fourteen years later, the fourth-year in speech and hearing science can sit on her computer and look up North Korea on Google Maps – something that wasn’t possible until last week.
Google revealed North Korea on Google Maps, which had been one of the world’s largest areas with limited map access. According to Google, it relied on “a community of citizen cartographers” who gave them information on the layout of North Korea over several years. It used Google Map Maker to establish landmarks, schools, hospitals, street names, hotels and prisons within North Korea’s borders. The maps also show a main nuclear complex and various gulags, internment camps where enemies of the government are allegedly kept.
Mitchell Lerner, an associate professor of history and the director of Ohio State’s Institute for Korean Studies, said the biggest impact of this new mapping is that it will make North Korea’s problems more immediate to the rest of the world.
“The realities and horrors of North Korea are well known in the back of the minds of the world’s population, but it’s easy to shut it out,” Lerner said. “Now, the ability to just touch a button and see these prison camps … might help humanize it in the eyes of people who might bring the problem to the front and center.”
Lerner said although government leaders and scholars knew of these prison camps before Google Maps, North Korea has denied their existence.
These new maps seem basic compared to the advanced ones people use in the U.S., but Lerner said the window into North Korea is astounding.
“North Korea is arguably the most closed society in human history,” Lerner said. “The control held by the government is virtually unprecedented.”
The overwhelming majority of North Korea does not have Internet access so they will not be able to benefit from these maps, Lerner said.
Ra agreed.
“Obviously the maps can be a resource for us, but as far as the North Koreans, I don’t think the people can use that to their advantage because they don’t have phone or Internet access,” she said.
Yahoo! and Bing still have a lot of empty space on their maps of North Korea, said Ningchuan Xiao, an associate professor in the Department of Geography.
Xiao said although Google is the first company to publicize this information, other companies might put North Korea on their maps soon.
“It depends on how the companies see how they can benefit,” Xiao said. “Probably, Yahoo! will catch up soon.”
Xiao said the online community revolutionized mapping and who controls the information.
“That’s a big deal for public access, to maps, to geography and some political environments,” Xiao said.
The government used to control most of this mapping information and because of technology, map making has changed drastically, Xiao said.
“We can probably assume that much of this information is already know(n) by the Pentagon or the U.S. military,” Xiao said. “I think it has a big impact.”
Xiao said with the Internet the world seems increasingly smaller, and getting North Korea on the map was just the next step.
“It’s as if distance almost doesn’t matter,” Xiao said.
However, Ra said the recent mapping availability won’t change the kind of lives people are dealing with inside the still-isolated country.
“North Koreans are so brainwashed that they don’t know what’s outside of what they’re living through,” she said.

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