North Korea has strict controls on internal movement, a scarcity of private car ownership and almost no Internet users. And now it’s also got satellite navigation through Google Maps.
The service is available through the web and mobile apps and allows users to calculate travel time by car or foot between points of interest in the Google database. It’s limited to roads that have already been mapped out on the service.
It’s been over a year since Google began adding roads, buildings, railway lines and other data to its map of North Korea. The country had for years appeared as a grey void but that began to change when users were asked to help start building the map.
“We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone with Google Map Maker,” the company said in January 2013. “From this point forward, any further approved updates to the North Korean maps in Google Map Maker will also appear on Google Maps.”
As a result of that call for action, and perhaps additional information obtained by Google, users can now do things like this:
The Android app provides step-by-step instructions for the drive to Kaesong, which apparently takes a little under 2 hours assuming an average speed of around 105 kilometers per hour – perhaps a little ambitious although traffic hold ups shouldn’t be a problem.
While the system appears to have data about many of the major roads in North Korea, it doesn’t contain any information about border crossings. Asking for routes to both Seoul and Bejing resulted in failure.
While Google Maps shows railway lines, tram lines in Pyongyang, the Pyongyang Metro and Sunan airport, there’s no timetable data in the system so public transport searches also result in failure.
And because you can map from any known point to another, you can also plot an escape route on foot from the Yodok concentration camp to the Chinese border, although walking along a major road for 81 hours probably isn’t the best way to avoid getting caught.
While we’re looking at Google Maps on the Korean peninsular, a glance south of the border reveals an ironic twist. Here’s the directions to Panmunjon from Seoul:
If you take a close look, you’ll see that Google doesn’t have any data for South Korea’s civilian control zone, the area by the border with North Korea that appears as a grey blank. The closest the system can get is Imjingak and even then only public transport information is available.
Due to South Korean regulations, apparently related to the country’s internal security, driving directions are not available via Google. The U.S.-based company has to obey South Korean law because it had an office in Seoul. It has no such relationship with North Korea so it’s free to map whatever it wants in that country without fear of reprisal.