SEOUL – Until Tuesday, North Korea appeared on Google Maps as a near-total white space – no roads, no train lines, no parks and no restaurants. The only thing labeled was the capital city, Pyongyang.
This all changed Tuesday when Google rolled out a detailed map of one of the world’s most secretive states. The new map labels things such as Pyongyang’s subway stops and the country’s several city-sized gulags, as well as its monuments, hotels, hospitals and department stores.
According to a Google blog post, the maps were created by a group of volunteer citizen cartographers, through an interface known as Google Map Maker. That program – much like Wikipedia – allows users to submit their own data, which is then fact-checked by other users, and sometimes altered many times over. Similar processes were used in other once-unmapped countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar.
In the case of North Korea, those volunteers worked from outside the country, beginning from 2009. They used information that was already public, compiling details from existing analog maps, satellite images, or other Web-based materials. Much of the information was already available on the Internet, said Hwang Min-woo, 28, a volunteer mapmaker from Seoul who worked for two years on the project.
North Korea was the last country virtually unmapped by Google, but other – even more detailed – maps of North Korea existed before this. Most notable is a map created by Curtis Melvin, who runs the North Korea Economy Watch blog and spent years identifying thousands of landmarks in North Korea: tombs, textile factories, film studios, even rumored spy training locations.
The map’s publication comes just weeks after the visit to North Korea of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who toured the country in a series of highly staged encounters that included a stop at a computer library, which Schmidt’s daughter later described in a blog post as the e-Potemkin Village.
Schmidt’s visit was unrelated to the map roll-out, a Google spokesman said.
Google, in its blog post about the new North Korea map, acknowledged that the information is not perfect.