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What Is Google's Map Update Showing in N. Korea?

"...offer much more information and detail than before."

Shortly after its executive chairman Eric Schmidt's return from a "private humanitarian" mission to North Korea, Google has released an update to its Maps product in the country.

What is it showing? A detailed map with significantly more roads than have ever been so easily accessible on the Internet before.

In a blog post, Google's Jayanth Mysore, a senior product manager for Google Map Maker, wrote that although North Korea has long been one of the largest areas that Google has had limited map data to, that is now changed.

Google's map for Pyongyang, North Korea before (left) and after (right) the update. (Images: Google Map)

"To build this map, a community of citizen cartographers came together in Google Map Maker to make their contributions such as adding road names and points of interest," Mysore wrote. "This effort has been active in Map Maker for a few years and today the new map of North Korea is ready and now available on Google Maps. As a result, the world can access maps of North Korea that offer much more information and detail than before."

Granted, it is likely some of the roads were in existence for a long while, even if they weren't officially recorded on Google Maps.

Mysore acknowledges that the crowd-sourced map isn't perfect, which is expected from a country that doesn't readily divulge much of its information. He puts out a call for more people to continue improving the accuracy of the maps with information they might have.

What's the point of it all?

"Creating maps is a crucial first step towards helping people access more information about parts of the world that are unfamiliar to them," Mysore wrote. "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."

Recently, another Google product -- Google Earth -- was being hailed for its increased use in revealing North Korean prison camps. Although Pyongyang has maintained that no such camps exist, those scouring information pulled in from Google Earth satellites show otherwise. In fact, one such blogger might have found a new camp all together.

Curtis Melvin, who maintains the blog North Korean Economy Watch, wrote Google's recent data update to its Earth product shows an area bearing similar characteristics to other camps. This potential camp would have been built between December 2006 and September 2011.

"It is surrounded by a very visible security perimeter," Melvin wrote. "It is also placed right next to Camp 14– even sharing 3kms of border."

Images from Google Earth satellites might reveal a new kwan-li-so (or prison camp). (Image: Curtis Melvin/Google Earth)

Melvin wrote that he didn't want to jump to conclusions about the site being that of a prison camp, but the blog One Free Korea picked up on  the images he found and agreed with some indications of it being a camp.

One Free Korea thought some of the characteristics -- its perimeter and lack of direct roads -- might suggest its use as a prison camp. The blogger does acknowledge that it could be a military compound or temporary detention center.

Either way, it's "a good part of North Korea to hide people," One Free Korea wrote.

A report by Reuters this month had bloggers and human rights activists saying Google Earth -- and perhaps now Google Maps -- shed light on some of the once secretive parts of North Korea.

"Satellite imagery readily available through Google Earth has certainly enabled human rights experts to decisively confirm that these facilities do exist, despite the fact that the North Korean regime denies their existence," Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu said to Reuters earlier this month.



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