Google goes to North Korea, then maps the country’s gulags for everyone to see

January 30, 2013

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent visit to North Korea may have been an overt good-will political move to expand the Internet search giant’s frontiers for new customers, but the company’s latest foray into international politics was a subtle as it was cunning: it Google Mapped North Korea. The whole country. Right down to the gulags.

The existence of North Korea’s labor camps has been known for quite some time, but not to this level of detail. The maps not only layout the area in which the camps operate, but they also label theaters, bunks, factories, and the office locations of gulag sites (complete with reviews!). It even got the street names of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, as well as the locations of various monuments, squares and schools.

Google didn’t do the map making on its own. The company called on the assistance of “a community of citizen cartographers,” according to the New York Times, to fill in the blank spots in the North Korean map. The map isn’t as detailed as others available in South Korea or, the Times reports, but that may not matter at all: the mapping is likely a concerted effort by Google to raise awareness of the plight of North Korean citizens. As Buzzfeed‘s John Herrman writes:

The purpose is obvious: to make the existence of these camps known; to point out that North Korea is secretive, and would never release this data on its own; to emphasize that the country is not capable of producing satellite imagery; and, most important, to remind outsiders that thousands of its citizens (and some foreigners) are sent to these camps, where they are subjected to hard labor, starvation, torture, medical experimentation, and execution.

Even if mapping North Korea wasn’t a political move (which it most assuredly is), it’ll still likely influence ongoing tensions between North Korea, which is threatening a third nuclear test in response to U.N. sanctions, and the United States, which pushed for said sanctions after the North successfully fired a long-range rocket in December, 2012.

Google currently denies any connections between Schmidt’s recent visit to the secretive country and the creation of the map, according to The Verge. North Korea, so far, hasn’t responded to the map’s existence.

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