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The Pyongyang’s All Here

Posted on 12 February 2013 by James Bond

Google has now mapped the surface of Mars and the bottom of the ocean. So what’s left, a person has to wonder — what remains uncharted?

The answer used to be North Korea. But Google recently released its cartographic impression of the Hermit Kingdom, and as usual, it comes with all the Googley goodies: just move your cursor across Kim Il-sung Square, and you’ll be met with site labels, embedded photographs, Wikipedia entries, directions, ratings and reviews.

While researching a book on North Korea, I spent several years trying to find maps of its major cities. Military, topographical, agricultural — I would have taken a sketch on the back of a napkin. But maps of any kind were nearly impossible to come by.

When I finally visited Pyongyang, the capital, in 2007, acquiring a map was a top priority. But the only guide I found wore red lipstick.

My minder was smart and appraising, with something regal about her. And driving around Pyongyang, I couldn’t stop pestering her with questions:

“I don’t see any trash cans,” I said. “Where are the trash cans?”

We’re a society without waste, she said.

Later, I wondered where the mailboxes were.

We have the world’s most efficient mail system was her answer.

I hadn’t seen a fire station. “Where do you keep your fire trucks?” I asked her.

We haven’t had a fire in the capital in 12 years.

Later, when I finally popped the big question — “Oh, can we stop someplace that sells maps?” — she swept her hand to include the driver, the state-supplied videographer and her assistant, and said: We are your map. We’re all you need to find your way.

I didn’t get my map, if one existed to get. In later years, useful satellite maps, curated by North Korea experts and annotated by defectors, came online.

And now we have Google’s.

So what is revealed in the Great Tech Leader’s rendering of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

We are.

The truth, of course, is that the only people on earth who can’t see Google’s map of North Korea and comment on its features are the North Koreans.

Which leaves the rest of us to do the job. “Citizen cartographers,” Google calls us — though it would seem we are deficient in at least a few qualities that great mapmakers require: texture, nuance, subtlety.

Google lists 70 reviews for Bukchang Gulag (Camp 18), reportedly home to tens of thousands of prisoners. One reviewer said this concentration camp was “Nothing to write home about,” while another called it “Hands down, my favorite gulag.”

“Lacks wifi” was one reviewer’s comment on the infamous Kaechon Gulag (Camp 14).

Yodok (Camp 15) is a family gulag and the subject of Kang Chol-hwan’s harrowing memoir “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Yodok was described by one Google user as “dated and in desperate need of a face-lift. We ran out of towels after the first day and the staff wasn’t very understanding of our towel needs.” (Four out of five people found this review helpful.)

Sooner or later, I guess, everything gets mapped. Providing perspective takes a little longer.

Adam Johnson, the author of the novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” teaches creative writing at Stanford University.

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