4 must-sees on Google's new map of North Korea

Google Maps releases a crowdsourced view of the Hermit Kingdom that fills in what used to be a nation of white space

A satellite view of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang, North Korea.
(Image credit: <a href="https://maps.google.com/maps?q=google+maps+Pyongyang&amp;aq=f&amp;um=1&amp;ie=UTF-8&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=N&amp;tab=wl">Google Maps</a>)

North Korea was long a big blank space on Google Maps. No roads were visible. No train lines. In fact, Pyongyang, the secretive communist nation's capital, was the only identified landmark. Google changed that on Tuesday, unveiling a detailed view of North Korea that points out spots as small as stores or subway stops, and as large as North Korea's gulags, some of which are the size of cities. Google says the pinpoint-specific maps were created through years of crowdsourcing. Volunteer "citizen cartographers" — working outside the Hermit Kingdom and using publicly available materials for the most part — contributed details to a system called Google Map Maker. What are some points of interest curious onlookers might like to view while safely sitting outside the country's unfriendly borders? Here are four:

1. Hwasong Gulag

In northeastern North Korea sits Penal Labor Colony No. 16, also known as Hwasong Gulag. The 212-square-mile concentration camp is believed to house 10,000 people, many of them political prisoners. Reportedly, no one has ever escaped. On Google Maps, the camp looks like a city on the Hwasong River. "One street, called Gulag 16 Road, cuts through it," says Chico Harlan at The Washington Post. "And at the end of Gulag 16 Road is a train station. Beyond that, little else around the gulag is marked." Like many of the revealed landmarks, Hwasong Gulag hints at the country's innumerable atrocities. The image of Camp 22, the Hoeryong Gulag, shows the clear outline of the camp, where almost 30,000 people reportedly died of starvation in 2012.

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2. Kim Jong Il's tomb

"Google Maps users can peruse the North Korean landscape to see the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, which houses the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il," says Cavan Sieczkowski at The Huffington Post. In addition to spotting these sites, curiosity seekers can also enjoy a "snarkfest" going on among commenters, according to Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer at Foreign Policy. One, who identified himself as Richie Heimbrock, said about the Pyongyang memorial building: "I found the fish tacos to be really underwhelming."

3. Yongbyon nuclear facility

One of North Korea's most controversial sites, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, is also located on the map, "though it offers few additional details," says Akiko Fujita at ABC News. Yongbyon is North Korea's main nuclear facility. It houses the country's first nuclear reactors, and produced the fuel used in the country's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Google says further detail might be made available as the crowdsourcing continues. "We know this map is not perfect," Google senior product manager Jayanth Mysore said in a statement posted online. "One of the exciting things about maps is that the world is a constantly changing place."

4. A non-existent golf course?

Indeed, the map is already in the process of being revised. It shows, for example, a golf course on Yanggak Island, located in a river that runs through Pyongyang. Curtis Melvin, who runs the North Korea Economy Watch blog, spent years putting together his own map, and says the Yanggak Island golf course probably isn't there any more. "So far, Google's efforts are largely symbolic," says Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It won't be easy to make a Google map of North Korea of the kind you see of other countries."

Sources: ABC News, Al Jazeera, CNN, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, New York Times, Washington Post

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.