New Google Maps view adds another level of North Korean scrutiny

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects
The Lookout

Search for "North Korea" in Google Maps and you'll get a whole new perspective.

Google on Monday published its most detailed map yet of North Korea, including some road names and points of interest.

"To build this map, a community of citizen cartographers came together," Jayanth Mysore, senior product manager, Google Map Maker, wrote on "This effort has been active in Map Maker for a few years, [and] the new map of North Korea is ready and now available."

Charting the enigmatic and repressive country was a four-year process, David Marx, head of product PR for Google Asia-Pacific, told Yahoo News.

We "have a small team of reviewers across the globe that may review and moderate updates in Map Maker to ensure data quality," Marx said.

"We know this map is not perfect," Mysore also wrote on the company blog. "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."

Making detailed North Korean maps, however, has been geared less to matters of kinship and more about its human rights abuses and nuclear armament. DPRK Digital Atlas — based on Google Earth — recently debuted a detailed overview of North Korea. The project, based out of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International studies, emerged as a partnership with 38 North and North Korean Economy Watch (NKEW). NKEW released an incredibly detailed map back in 2009, documenting railroad systems, compounds— complete with water slides—belonging to that country's elite, breweries, ostrich farms, and gulags.

"Satellite imagery is one of the few ways for foreigners to comprehend North Korea’s economic and security infrastructure, because information is so restricted," SAIS research associate Jenny Town notes in an email to Yahoo!. "Through satellite imagery we can see changes not only in the North’s missile and nuclear sites, but also markets and roads and other infrastructure which help us better understand how the North is developing. It is a good thing that Google Maps has become interested in North Korea, and we hope they will continue to refine their information."

Just recently, analysis of satellite imagery has monitored the development of long-range missiles at North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station and a possible upcoming nuclear test at Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility.

Analysis of new satellite imagery from January 23, 2013 and previous images dating back a month reveal that the site appears to be at a continued state of readiness that would allow the North to move forward with a test in a few weeks or less once the leadership in Pyongyang gives the order. Snowfall and subsequent clearing operations as well as tracks in the snow reveal ongoing activity at buildings and on roadways near the possible test tunnel. A photo from January 4 identifies a group of personnel, possibly troops or security guards, in formation in the yard of the administrative area near the test tunnel entrance, perhaps to greet visiting officials or for some other more routine purpose. (Jan. 25, 38 North)

The scrutiny's especially intense these days, after the United Nations's threat of sanctions if North Korea follows through with its test. A war of words has been launched, with a China editorial warning of reduced aid, South Korea's support of the resolution, and North Korea's fury directed at its southern neighbor, warning of "merciless retaliatory blows."

Yet in the meantime, leader Kim Jong Un reportedly plans to open North Korea to foreign investment, similar to Vietnam's economic development, to turn around the impoverished nation. He has already invited German economists and lawyers to plot that direction. With all this, map-watching North Korea may become a whole new online sport.