Not many things remain impossible in this day and age. Just a few days ago, Google maps had nothing more than white expanses of nothingness in the name of North Korea. The only thing labeled was the capital city, Pyongyang. It was easily understood as North Korea is one of the most secretive areas of the world and has almost nil interaction with the outside visit. Not anymore though. Google has rectified the problem and there is now quite a detailed map available of the country!
The map is a culmination of years of data collected from "citizen cartographers" using the Map Maker that allows users to submit their own data, which is then fact-checked and altered by other users.
This has now changed. The new map labels everything from Pyongyang’s subways, hotels, hospitals and department stores. The near miraculous update has come just weeks after the visit to North Korea of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who toured the country. Google however terms Schmidt’s visit unrelated to the event.
The volunteers worked on the map from outside of 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.
Hwang Min-woo, a 28-year-old South Korean who contributed to the North Korea map, said he began working on it after trying to use Google Maps on a trip to Laos four years ago and finding it inadequate.
"I thought if I could fill in information on North Korea, it might be useful in an emergency or a tragedy if Google can provide a map for aid agencies," he said.
According to Sebastiaan van Oyen who works as a risk manager for a financial trading firm in Sydney,"I wanted to go to North Korea and because it was not yet mapped I decided to start mapping so I could at least see how easy it would be to travel within the country."
Also noticeable on an overview of the country’s map are a series of city-sized, grey-colored areas which, when zoomed in on, are identified as "re-education camps". As many as 200,000 people are estimated to be held in the North's detention system.
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.
Google, in its blog post about the new North Korea map, acknowledged that the information is “not perfect.”
“We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone”with the map-making program, Google said.
The map is unlikely to have an immediate influence in the North Korea but it could be an opportunity for the world to know more about North Korea and an opportunity for the North to open itself more to the outside world. Though not much in North Korea’s stance has so far given much hope, things have changed somewhat with Kim Jong Un.
The North has a domestic intranet, which 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 use of internet is limited to a few hundred, maybe 1,000 people at most.
But it could prove to be beneficial for outsider analysts and scholars, providing an easy-to-access record about North Korea’s provinces, roads, landmarks, as well as hints about its many unseen horrors.
These maps will also prove to be especially important for the citizens of South Korea who have ancestral connections and even family living there.