Mapping North Korea

UPDATE – As of 1/30/2013 Google has added North Korea features to its maps.  Feel free to continue reading this post, because as of 5/18/2011, when this post was written, it was spot on. Just imagine that the embedded Google maps don’t have any features.  I really should have grabbed screen shots when I wrote this.

A week or so ago I read a story from Amnesty International that discussed the use of satellite imagery to measure the growth of  political prison camps in North Korea.  I thought it was great that these citizen geographers were using a resource such as satellite imagery to measure this troubling phenomena.  Then, the inquiring geographer in me wanted to know where these prison camps were within North Korea. A quick Google/Wikipedia search gave me some coordinates and I was able to find the locations on the map.  I then noticed something, that to me, that was way more interesting.

I zoomed out just a little bit and I noticed the total lack of cartographic markers on the map. I then zoomed out some more and there were still no place names, regional boundaries, city names, or physical features.  Test it for yourself, zoom in and out on the following Google Map.  Pretty amazing.

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Then I checked out the region around the capital city of Pyongyang, which is a city of over three million residents.  Still, nothing.

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The researcher in me then wanted to compare the cartographic representation of North Korea using other popular online map services.  I did a simple search for North Korea and Pyongyang using Bing Maps, Open Street Map, and MapQuest. The following results are very interesting.

Bing, owned by a gigantic corporation, which has used professional data providers for many years, has a much better North Korea map than Google, with cities, regional boundaries, and physical features labeled:

and Bing’s Pyongyang map had some minimal detail to it.

Open Street Map (OSM), an open source, user created worldwide map, was by far the most detailed.  Why? Because the OSM community created and published the data themselves.

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There is also far more detail in and around Pyongyang than Bing and Google.

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MapQuest (yes, they still exist) was a happy medium between Bing, and OSM.  There was detail in regards to the major cities, regional boundaries, and physical features.  There was also a clear difference in terms of  the cartographic details when one compared the cartographic features in the neighboring countries of China and South Korea.

Around Pyongyang the level of map detail was greater than Google and Bing, but less than OSM.  The user can make out details related to major transportation networks and some local features.

The overriding questions is, why would these three other web mapping providers map this information but Google wouldn’t?  I searched for a reason throughout the interwebs and I couldn’t find a legitimate answer.  I understand the North Korea is a closed society, run by a dictator that has a horrible human rights record. However, if this apart of Google’s “do no evil” approach to business then why are other countries with troubled histories, dictators, or in civil wars mapped?  Whatever the reason, there are a number of other sources for mapping data that are easily accessible.