As has been widely reported (including in this morning’s Age), North Korea this week has started appearing in some detail on Google Maps – having previously been largely a blank there, and indeed on most other maps as well. The move is being linked, logically enough, to the visit of Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, to North Korea earlier this month.

Despite that connection, there’s no confirmation that any of the new data comes from official North Korean sources. Google’s own announcement just refers to “citizen cartographers” who have improved the mapping piece by piece using the company’s “Map Maker” tool. And there’s probably a fair bit that the North Korean government won’t be very happy about revealing to the world – specific items such as the baldly labelled “Yodok Gulag”, but also the general amount of detail on the whereabouts of railways, ports, airfields and other items of strategic significance.

Yet Schmidt’s visit shows that Google has at least some sort of relationship with the North Korean authorities, so it seems unlikely that it would have gone ahead if it thought they would throw a major tantrum as a result. And realistically, anyone who had military designs against North Korea would already have better data from satellite photography and on-the-ground espionage.

But if you haven’t already done so, spend some time playing with the newly lifelike North Korea. It’s remarkably good. Pyongyang looks like a real city, and even what seem to be just medium-sized provincial towns have quite a bit of detail. Not nearly as much as you’d get for a western country, of course (not surprisingly, there’s no sign of any “street view”), but it compares favorably with large parts of Africa or even Russia.

It even has Google’s usual eccentricities, like the inconsistent mix of native names and latinised versions. But the fit between the maps and the satellite images is very good – better than it often is in Australia – presumably because so much of them has been compiled from the imagery in the first place. (The downside of that is that street names are few and far between.)

Just as Google Maps generally gives us a wonderful ability to recapture the sense of being in foreign places, this new mapping must be an amazing gift for the thousands living in South Korea who fled the North as children or young people 60-odd years ago, and now can again see images of the places they grew up in. It will also of course be helpful to the North Koreans themselves, or at least the small number who have access to the internet.

Schmidt’s message to North Korea, it’s reported, was that it should “end its self-imposed isolation and allow its citizens to use the internet,” and that “it would lag behind economically unless it embraced internet freedom.” No doubt there are other sorts of unfreedom that also hold North Korea back, but the message is a sound one. Just possibly this is a sign that someone there may be listening.

It’s also an incredibly vivid reminder to the rest of us that the North Koreans are fundamentally people just like us. Although we should do what we can to help consign their dreadful government to the dustbin of history, we should never fall into the trap of demonising the people themselves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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