Revealing N Korea's gulag and nuclear sites

Google's newly updated maps show unprecedented detail in aerial imagery of isolated labour camps and missile launch pad.


Detailed aerial satellite views of North Korea's half-dozen labour camps and key nuclear sites are visible to users browsing the newly updated Google Maps

While citizen cartographers have been compiling detailed information on North Korea for years, on Monday Google announced the publication of mapping data that had previously been missing.

The release follows a private "humanitarian mission" by Google executive Eric Schmidt to Pyongyang with Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico.

After the trip, commentators speculated on the mix of business and political motives by Schmidt, while the US government emphasised that it had no connection to the visit. Commenting on what he saw, Schmidt criticised the North Korean decision to be "virtually isolated".

Schmidt was apparently unable to meet with a detained Korean-American, but said he urged the country to increase internet access. The country has minimal connectivity with the outside, and only a small percentage of citizens can even log onto the domestic intranet.

Yet some North Korea experts have warned against relying too heavily on the new Google maps for understanding news developments by attempting to peer into the hermit kingdom.

"The timeliness and frequency of satellite imagery is an issue. You cannot see things move around and change," said Daniel Pinkston, deputy project director at the International Crisis Group's Northeast Asia Programme. "You only see intermittently - a frozen picture."

Pinkston continued about any inferences drawn from viewing the maps: "Yet people are able to corroborate a lot with testimony from witnesses coming out of there ... The accuracy is not perfect, but it could be good. Still, the exact validity is hard to say."

Google's new maps include highly specific information about six forced labour camps throughout the country, where some 200,000 detainees are thought to be kept in poor conditions. The difference in the amount of visual data presented in the new maps - compared with the old versions - is stark.

The updated information has even prompted some analysts to speculate about the existence of an additional gulag.

Woo Jung Yeop, a research fellow at the Asan Institute in Seoul, told Al Jazeera: "I'm pretty sure that the info revealed from the Google map is not coming from [any] agreement between Google and North Korea ... since Google doesn't need the consent of a host country for that."

Sceptical that Google had obtained any kind of special access on the ground in North Korea, Woo concluded: "North Korea does not have the intention to open its internet to its own public or to the world."

The images below are screenshots from the new Google Maps:

During a surprise New Year speech, Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean leader, called for renewed dialogue with the South. But that address followed a successful December 12 rocket launch which was strongly condemned by the UN. 

While recent visitors have reported an uptick in economic activity since the new leader took over from his father, the nation remains desperately impoverished.

"The priority for those [launch] events is to further his domestic standing," the Asan Institute's Woo said. "It's something to show to the elites and the public of North Korea."

Woo also said the North Korean leader was using Schmidt's visit to promote his image "as friendly to Western companies". 

"Kim wants to enhance the terms of negotiations with the US. It's not about South Korea. The North doesn't need ICBMs [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles] to attack Seoul. They are showing [their capabilities] to the US."