Monday, May 25, 2009

Gulags, Nukes and a Water Slide: Citizen Spies Lift North Korea's Veil

Via -

In the propaganda blitz that followed North Korea's missile launch last month, the country's state media released photos of leader Kim Jong Il visiting a hydroelectric dam and power station.

Images from the report showed two large pipes descending a hillside. That was enough to allow Curtis Melvin, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University in suburban Virginia, to pinpoint the installation on his online map of North Korea.

Mr. Melvin is at the center of a dozen or so citizen snoops who have spent the past two years filling in the blanks on the map of one of the world's most secretive countries. Seeking clues in photos, news reports and eyewitness accounts, they affix labels to North Korean structures and landscapes captured by Google Earth, an online service that stitches satellite pictures into a virtual globe. The result is an annotated North Korea of rocket-launch sites, prison camps and elite palaces on white-sand beaches.

"It's democratized intelligence," says Mr. Melvin.

More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin's file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as "nuclear issues" (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet's power to unite a disparate community of busybodies.

"Here is one of the most closed countries in the world and yet, through this effort on the Internet by a bunch of strangers, the country's visible secrets are being published," says Martyn Williams, a Tokyo-based technology journalist who recently sent Mr. Melvin the locations of about 30 North Korean lighthouses.


Many updates later, Mr. Melvin and his correspondents have plotted out what they say is much of the country's transportation network and electrical grid, and many of its military bases. They've spotted what they believe are mass graves created in the 1995-98 famine that killed an estimated two million people. The vast complexes of Mr. Kim and other North Korean leaders are visible, with palatial homes, pools, even a water slide.

An official at North Korea's consulate in Hong Kong declined to grant an interview. Its embassy in London didn't respond to a faxed request for comment.

Mr. Melvin says he cross-checks what information he can and adjusts other facts with the help of collaborators. He says he has met only a few of the contributors. Some have identified themselves as former members of the U.S. military who once studied the country professionally. Some have been anonymous.

Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington who once served in the U.S. military in South Korea, used Google Earth to look for one of the country's notorious prisons. In early 2007, he read an international news report about a mass escape from Camp 16, which the report mentioned was near the site of a nuclear test conducted the year before.

No pictures of Camp 16 are believed to have been seen outside the country. But Mr. Stanton had pored over defector sketches of it and combed the map for familiar structures. "I realized I had already noticed the guard posts" on Google Earth the previous year for the nuclear test site, he says.

Mr. Stanton traced what he believed is Camp 16's boundary, enclosing nearly 300 square miles, and those of other large North Korean prisons and shared them with Mr. Melvin. The fences aren't easy to follow because they go over mountain ridges, he says. But satellite images often reveal gaps in the vegetation along the fence line, because trees are cleared on either side to prevent people from climbing over.

Last year, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas used Mr. Stanton's maps in a floor presentation criticizing the North's human-rights record. "Google has made a witness of all of us," Mr. Brownback said. "We can no longer deny these things exist."


The file can be downloaded from Mr. Melvin's site...(it is currently loading slow however)

Here is a screenshot of the file loaded into Google Earth...

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