Google offers rare look at North Korea

The company has released maps of the secretive military dictatorship, even highlighting areas where the country runs gulag-like camps.

By Aimee Picchi Jan 29, 2013 2:02PM

Google (GOOG) is adding maps for North Korea, offering those outside the secretive country a glimpse of its infrastructure, including outlines for some of its notorious prison camps. 

The release of the new maps comes just weeks after Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt returned from the country on what he described as a private visit to discuss the "free and open Internet." Google told The Wall Street Journal that Schmidt's trip was unrelated to the new maps.

The release had been in the works "for a while" as part of a Google development program called Map Maker, a spokesman for Google told the WSJ. Map Maker is a collaborative project that taps into crowdsourcing, and in North Korea's example, relied on a "community of citizen cartographers" to add road names and points of interest, according to a Google blog post.

"For a long time, one of the largest places with limited map data has been North Korea," the blog post notes. "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."Pyongyang, North Korea skyline (Berthold Trenkel/Photodisc/Getty Images)

While Google admits that the maps "aren't perfect," they are a clear improvement on its previous maps. According to screen shots provided by Google, the capital city of Pyongyang had been shown mostly blank, with the Taedong River running through a bare landscape. Now, the new map shows the city's landmarks, theaters, street names and subway stops. 

The maps also show more than North Korea would probably like. They also identify the locations of several prison camps, such as Hwasong Gulag, which are marked in grey areas on the site's map. 

The country's six political labor camps are thought to hold hundreds of thousands of prisoners in "the most inhuman conditions imaginable," according to the human rights group Amnesty International.

Given that most North Koreans don't have Internet access, it's unlikely that the Google maps will have much impact on them, notes the Washington Post. However, they could prove useful for outside analysts and scholars. 

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