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January 29, 2013

Google Unveils Detailed North Korea Map

by Steve Herman

The U.S.-based Internet giant Google has unveiled a detailed map of North Korea. Maps provided by Internet search engines provide a variety of benefits to users, including travel routes and landmark locations. Google's new map gives significant details of parts of reclusive North Korea, including the capital, Pyongyang, and some notorious gulags. But few people living in the isolated country are likely to be able to peruse the Internet search tool.

Among the Internet's online sites, Google is known for its detailed maps of virtually every inhabited spot on the planet. But until now, North Korea has largely been unknown territory when it comes to the best known online maps available.

One respected online North Korea interactive map project is 38 North: DPRK Digital Atlas.

Jayanth Mysore, senior product manager for Google's Map Maker tool, said in a recent blog posting that a “community of citizen cartographers,” working over several years, helped to fill in the blanks.

There has been no immediate reaction from North Korean authorities about the enhanced Google map.

Kim Hung-kwang, a former professor at the North's Hamheung Computer Technology University who defected to the South, says the map eventually could end up on the isolated country's own intranet or be accessed via cell phones. 

Kim says it might even be possible that North Korea would license the Google map for use by its citizens.
 
But others are skeptical.

The map lists subway stops, schools and hospitals in the capital, Pyongyang. But it also shows remote locations for the North's so-called "re-education camps."

Human rights activists say up to 200,000 people may be held in these gulags.

Professor Yang Moo-jin at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies expects the authorities in Pyongyang will be upset with Google for detailing locations such as the gulags and military bases.

Yang says the North Koreans are very sensitive about such facilities. So he would not be surprised to see North Korea protesting to Google about the map details.

​​Earlier this month, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt went to Pyongyang as part of an entourage that included former New Mexico governor and U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson.

Schmidt said after his visit that he told North Korean officials “they have to make it possible for people to use the Internet.”

Internet access is restricted to all but the most privileged and influential in North Korea. It is believed that the number of people there authorized to access the web totals fewer than 1,000.

By contrast, in South Korea, one of the world's most advanced countries for utilization of high technology, more than 39 million people are online.

Google says South Koreans contributed information for the North Korean map project, and it is encouraging additional contributors to help. But it is unlikely, for now, that anyone inside the impoverished and reclusive country will be permitted by authorities to assist.

 Additional reporting by Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul bureau.