On Tuesday at 11:57 a.m. Korean Standard Time, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded an earthquake in the northeastern part of North Korea.
Later in the day, North Korea confirmed the blast was in fact the result of a nuclear test.
Even if North Korea had intended to keep the test a secret, it likely wouldn’t have been able to, thanks to a tool many of us have come to rely on every day: Google Maps.
If you type the U.S. Geological Survey co-ordinates of the blast into Google Maps – 41.301°N, 129.066°E – and click on “Satellite,” a visual display of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is revealed. Just south of where the blast occurred, a long stretch of road pops up called “Nuclear Test Rd,” leading up to a large compound comprised of multiple grey buildings called “Nuclear Test Facility.”
It’s not known if the road is officially called “Nuclear Test Rd” or the compound “Nuclear Test Facility.” Google’s information comes from “citizen cartographers” – often locals believed to be keen on exposing the activities of the North Korean government – who have provided the company with road names and points of interest. Just as with Wikipedia, information is cross-checked by other users to verify its legitimacy, a Google spokesperson told The Globe and Mail.
The company first made the new information available in late January.
Google says that a big part of the initiative is helping South Koreans connect with parts of North Korea where they “have ancestral connections or still have family living there.”
But, as with the revelation of the “Nuclear Test Facility” and the exact location of the blast, Google is shining a light on other activities of the North Korean government, many of which have already been condemned by the international community.
Just east of the where the nuclear test took place, “Gulag 16 Rd” stretches from east of the blast site to just north of it, where clusters of buildings can be seen at various points along the road when zoomed in on the map. Google calls this area “Hwasong Gulag,” believed to be one of several forced-labour camps across the country where political dissenters have been sent over the years.
In 2011, Amnesty International estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned at Hwasong and as many as 200,000 in gulags across the country.
Pyongyang has vehemently denied the existence of gulags.
Google says it continues to encourage people to make contributions to its effort to map North Korea – a country the world has become fascinated with, but is arguably the most isolated.