Google unveils new detailed map of North Korea with detention camps

After years of compiling and checking satellite images, Google released a new map of North Korea that casts light on the infrastructure and geography of the reclusive nation, including where some of its detention camps are.

After years of compiling and vetting crowd-sourced research, Google has debuted a detailed map of North Korea, a largely undocumented country where only hundreds of its 23 million people have access to even the most limited forms of the Internet, ABC News reports.

For its map, Google relied on "citizen cartographers" to delve into its Map Maker tool and submit satellite images and ground knowledge. From this, the community of outsiders added roads and then significant points of interest, like Pyongyang Central Zoo, Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il rest, and, most strikingly, notorious North Korean gulags, where an estimated 200,000 North Koreans are detained in inhumane conditions.

Google's map features four "re-education" camps, including the Hoeryong Gulag and Yodok labor camps. All submitted landmarks and geographic features undergo a verification process similar to that of a Wikipedia article.

Jayanth Mysore, a senior product manager at Google, said in an online statement that while Map Maker remains a constant work in progress, it unleashes informational possibilities that are important for Koreans and the rest of the world.

"Creating maps is a crucial first step toward helping people access more information about parts of the world that are unfamiliar to them," Mysore said. "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."

South Korean officials also expressed enthusiasm about the Google project, saying it opens up a country that much of the world knows very little about.

"We think that this could be an opportunity for the world to know more about North Korea and an opportunity for the North to open itself more," a unification ministry spokeswoman told Al-Jazeera.

Google's Tuesday release comes weeks after its chairman, Eric Schmidt, visited North Korea alongside former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to promote openness and economic and technological innovation in the country. Only a handful of North Koreans use the Internet and that group is mainly restricted to state-approved information.

Google said the timing of its release had nothing to do with Schmidt's visit, and that the coincidence was brought on by the thorough fact-checking and compilation process involved in the map-making process, which began in 2009.

"There is absolutely no connection in the timing," David Marx, a Google spokesperson, told ABC News. "This data has been in Map Maker since 2009. It commonly takes the Map Maker community a few years to generate enough high-quality data to be moved into Google Maps proper."

Marx stressed that Map Maker is a constantly evolving work in progress, and he urged users to continue adding to the North Korean map. As of now, the map falls behind images on Google Earth and charts available in South Korean bookstores, according to The New York Times.

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

In Washington, the website 38 North, which also uses Google Earth, provides a more detailed representation of North Korea than what Map Maker is currently able to provide. The blog is the work of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University along with the help of Curtis Melvin, a Ph.D. economics student at George Mason University who's considered a preeminent expert on North Korean cartography. Melvin has spent the last seven years collecting data from North Korean television, newspaper clippings and satellite images and translating that information into drawings of military installations, gulags and infrastructure.

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