It happened in a surprising instant: North Korea became just a little bit more accessible. Google Maps now features data on the secretive country, with the names of streets and buildings labeled, plus some more sensitive information.
Beyond documenting the country’s cities, Google also pinpoints the locations of North Korea’s work camps. The gulag-like prisons are marked by brown shading. The information comes in part courtesy of an ongoing crowdsourcing effort, in which “citizen cartographers” worked together to create a detailed map.
Though what Google has added isn’t entirely complete, it’s a huge step up in detail from what the North Korea maps looked like before. Landscape, roads, and borders exist where there was nothing but blank map. There’s also a new level of interactivity — users can leave reviews on North Korean landmarks. The prison camps have attracted particular notice, with some leaving serious recollections of what life in the gulag was like, while others make fun of the surreal nature of the reviews’ presence. “After staying a week in the rather fantastic Buckchang Gulag, I had high expectations for the Hoeryong Gulag. I figured Gulag was some sort of chain,” reads one, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The maps appeared just after Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited the country. While the update is simply publishing public information, it has a political edge. It brings a level of transparency to a country consumed by mystery. Schmidt traveled to North Korea to preach the benefits of joining the networked world, and Google’s update nudges the country toward just that.
One concern Google’s update does bring up, however, is the question of how even the virtual landscape is. North Korea is well known as an abuser of human rights and an oppressive regime, but what about other countries with prison camps, like China, Russia, or the U.S.? Should every prison camp on earth be tagged by Google? Perhaps — it would make for a powerful statement on transparency. But for now, North Korea is the only tagging target.