North Korea's Hidden Gulags No Longer Hidden with Google Earth

By Steve Anderson January 10, 2013

While the recent delegation led by former governor Bill Richardson, featuring Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt, may have been met with skepticism and a bit of derision, chances are the delegation will be taken a bit more seriously, now that Google has indirectly been responsible for making a bit of history; specifically, locating North Korea's system of hidden prison camps located across the country thanks to Google Earth.

Recently, a collection of human rights activists and bloggers have taken to using Google Earth, more often used for education, marketing or just plain fun, and started setting the satellite imagery system to work over North Korea.

The end result was at least the beginnings of a map of dozens of formerly hidden prison camps located throughout North Korea.

Given that North Korea only measures about the size of Greece, and is home to just 23 million people, the task was not as big as some might think.

Given that, according to estimates from human rights groups, out of those 23 million, around 250,000 of them are currently in one of these remote mountain camps – the number actually increases when said prisoners' families are considered – it's clear why such a job was undertaken in the first place. While Schmidt's trip to North Korea will largely be forgotten in just a few weeks – it's already being treated with derision in some corners – the impact of Google Earth being used to find prison camps will likely be talked about for some time to come.

Several such camps appear to have been found, with images of things like gates and guard houses – and even some burial grounds – visible from the vantage point of Google Earth. Some of the larger ones are said to look almost indistinguishable from cities or villages.

But given that in some cases, gulag hunters found their quarry with the aid of expert analysis or even actual former North Koreans, it's a safe bet that those which are said to be found are actually so.

A 2003 book about the camps in question called "The Hidden Gulag" recently got a second edition released, and with that second release came prominent acknowledgment for the contribution supplied by Google Earth.

It's always exciting to see current technology used to new and unusual ends, and the use of Google Earth to find prison camps is no exception. This likely has to be an awkward development for North Korea, who now has one of the men largely responsible for the development of said program within their very borders, but who is so high-profile that little untoward can be done against him.

Still, it will be interesting to see how many more prison camps Google Earth can ultimately unearth and see the effects these have on human rights abuses worldwide.

Edited by Braden Becker

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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