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North Koreans shouldn’t count on using the new Google maps

Google recently published a detailed map of North Korea compiled by volunteer cartographers working outside the country. As the Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported, the new map details everything from monuments, to hotels, to the country's numerous sprawling labor camps.

Screenshot: Washington Post

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

Some North Korea watchers think the maps might allow more North Koreans to learn about a country that's obscure, even to them. Kim Hung-kwang, a former professor at the North's Hamheung Computer Technology University who defected to the South, told Voice of America that the map eventually could end up on North Korea's own intranet or be accessed via cell phones.

But others say that's not likely. Some North Koreans are slowly gaining access to international media through smuggled DVDs or Chinese cellphones, but these items are strictly forbidden.

Furthermore, North Korea's Internet is almost comically limited. Not only is the North Korean Web censored, it's confined to just a handful of Web sites that are almost entirely government-controlled.

Google's Eric Schmidt visited North Korea last month and urged the country to embrace the Internet. His daughter Sophie, who accompanied him on the trip, later wrote in a blog post that the country's Web system was "a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet."

Everyday North Koreans don’t have access to the Internet, but as we wrote in December, visitors to Pyongyang’s sole Internet cafe can log into North Korea’s custom-built operating system, Red Star. There, they're greeted by a readme file about “how important it is that the operating system correlates with the country’s values.”

Available Web sites include "Faster Korea," a site about North Korean sports,, a site for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, and Air Koryo, official online home of North Korea’s airline, according to North Korea tech.

The BBC had a great report on the North Korean Internet recently:

Whenever leader Kim Jong Un is mentioned, his name is automatically displayed ever so slightly bigger than the text around it. Not by much, but just enough to make it stand out.

The computer’s calendar does not read 2012, but 101 – the number of years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s former leader whose political theories define policy decisions.

The unveiling of the new Google Maps might actually be more of a boon for South Koreans, some analysts say. Until now, South Koreans who have defected had no way of checking on their former homes and relatives.

"It sounds great. I'll be happy to see the map of my hometown," Lee Nak-Ye, who heads an association for Koreans who moved from North to South, told AFP.

Lee, 80, left his home in the eastern port city of Hamhung when the 1950-53 Korean War broke out and can "only dream" of reuniting with the relatives he left behind.

"I'll tell other friends at the association about this," Mr Lee said. "Most of them are too old to learn how to use the Internet thing though."




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Washington Post · January 28, 2013

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