It's been nearly a decade since Shin Dong-hyuk, an ex-prisoner of North Korea's Camp 14, crawled over the electrocuted body of a friend lying dead on a fence, a boundary he was born inside of and lived within for 23 years. He made his way across the Chinese border on foot and was granted political asylum and citizenship in Seoul. Now, thanks to updated Google maps of the region, you can actually (if somewhat loosely) retrace the steps of his incredible escape.
Through its Map Maker program, which crowdsources cartographic info, Google has published finer details of some North Korean roads. More notably, it has included shaded-in locations of the country's notorious prison camps. The data has flowed in from a few different sources, including defected North Korean expats now living in Seoul. Geographically-minded tourists and visitors of North Korea have weighed in, and historic map data from pre-partitioned Korea has also been helpful. (Google maintains that the recent trip to Pyongyang by CEO Eric Schmidt had nothing to do with this project.)
Looking at the shading, you see a conglomeration of a couple camps. In the above image, Gulag 14, or the Kaechon internment camp (Shin's camp), is lobbed together with the adjacent Gulag 18, or the Bukchang concentration camp. Going back to older Google Earth layers–made by 38 North with help from pioneer Curtis Melvin, who also runs North Korean Economy Watch–you can see a whole lot more than you will in Google Maps' update:
This Google Earth file, which you can download by clicking here, doesn't only split up camps Kaechon and Bukchang, it is considered by its group of creators the "most comprehensive and authoritative source of administrative boundaries in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] that is publicly available."
So, while imaginary geographies of Google maps users are ushered into a more sobering perspective, these tweaks and refinements of North Korean coordinates are of slight navigable use. Considering it's illegal to use the real internet in North Korea, this project can only be deployed to outsiders. This is Google hurling a small stone at the dynastic North Korean state, which is pretty cool; if the country won't open its borders, Google will. It's just not very geographic, at least yet. It's big grey blobs. I guess that says something.
But don't let me leave things sour, this raising of awareness is totally chill. It's even a little bit punk, especially when the State Department is asking people like Google's Schmidt and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson not to go on diplomatic holiday to North Korea. At this point, it seems expected of the vigilant search engine. After busying itself last summer with 'Legalize Love', that campaign for global gay rights, it's nice to watch as Google feels lucky about aiding the future of some 150,000-200,000 people in North Korean gulags.