North Korea Streets and Gulags: Google Maps Reclusive Nation

Google's maps of North Korea show streets, monuments and gulags.

ByABC News
January 29, 2013, 10:03 AM

Jan. 29, 2013 — -- On Tuesday, Google unveiled a detailed map of North Korea, offering a rare glimpse inside the streets, landmarks and even the gulags located in the world's most isolated country.

From train stations to department stores, the Pyongyang zoo, and the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the embalmed bodies of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lay, the new map fills in the blanks in what has long been an empty space.

Most striking, it labels the notorious gulags, North Korea's secret labor camps, where more than 100,000 prisoners are reportedly held in inhumane conditions. The prisons, which appear large enough to be cities, are highlighted in shades of gray. The images aren't as crisp as ones you'll find when searching other parts of the world, but search for Camp 22 and the Hoeryong Gullag and you will be able to see the outline of the camp.

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, where controversial nuclear tests have been carried out, also appears on the map -- though it offers few additional details.

Google relied on a community of volunteer "citizen cartographers" to virtually piece the country together, according to its company blog. The crowd-sourcing project, which began a few years ago, relied on users outside of North Korea to contribute to the map using the Google Map Maker software. They gathered information from existing analog maps and satellite images.

Google Earth Used to Spot North Korean Labor Camp

"We know this map is not perfect. One of the exciting things about maps is that the world is a constantly changing place," said Google's senior product manager, Jayanth Mysore, in a statement posted online. "We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone with Google Map Maker."

The North Korean map comes weeks after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, visited the reclusive country in a private trip with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Google says Schmidt's visit had nothing to do with this recent release.

"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 said Google is encouraging volunteer mappers to improve the North Korea maps.

For all the details offered in the new map, much of North Korea remains largely unknown. Internet usage there is strictly limited to the upper echelons of society. The number of users are estimated to be around a few thousand out of a population of 24 million, with just more than 1,000 IP addresses registered. By comparison, there are 112 million IP addresses in neighboring South Korea, and 1.5 billion in the U.S.

Images: An Inside Look at North Korea

Curtis Melvin, a Ph.D. economics student at George Mason University in Virginia who operates the blog North Korean Economy Watch, still offers the most detailed map of North Korea. Drawing on information gathered from online newspapers, Korean TV newscasts, North Korean defectors and Google Earth, Melvin has spent the last seven years detailing rocket launch sites, palaces and gulags, among other things.

In collaboration with 38 North, the blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Melvin has laid out the information in the DPRK Digital Atlas.

"After seven years," he told ABC News, "I have amassed a colossal amount of satellite imagery that has been used to show the development of new factories, expansion of the electricity grid, the spread of markets, new military infrastructure and, unfortunately, apparent changes in the incarceration system."

Ned Potter and Joanna Stern contributed to this report.