Satellite Detectives in North Korea: The Role of the Citizen-Spy in the Age of the Internet

Author: William Harris, Goucher College



From a distance, the city is beautiful. Thanks to Google Maps, anyone with an internet connection can look up the city of Hamhŭng, North Korea, and see its gently rolling green hills. If you zoom in close enough, however, you may notice a number of small mounds, expanding outwards from the city and covering entire hillsides. They are the mass graves for the casualties of the 1995-1998 famine in North Korea that killed approximately two million people. The graves in Hamhŭng alone total somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. This is not something that the North Korean government has ever publically admitted. No one outside of the country would have any idea that these graves were there if not for the work of Curtis Melvin, the creator of the project North Korea Uncovered.

North Korea Uncovered combines Google Earth’s satellite imagery and the personal experience of numerous contributors to create a map of major North Korean landmarks. Given the North Korean’s regime’s famous reluctance in providing information to the outside world, it is extremely difficult to acquire reliable maps of the country. North Korea Uncovered attempts to get around the information barrier by simply going straight to the source. It’s difficult to hide from a satellite. The project has uncovered everything from the palaces of the North Korean elite, completed with Olympic-size swimming pools and private golf courses, to the forced-labor camps that dot the interior of the country. One could not imagine that North Korea to be pleased having these images publically available.

Curtis Melvin isn’t exactly who you would expect to be revealing the darkest secrets of an authoritarian regime. While he was working on North Korea Uncovered, Melvin was a doctoral student at George Mason University and running the site North Korea Economy Watch. His website, which is essentially a WordPress blog on North Korean economic issues, provided him the platform to undertake the project. He has no ties to the military, the State Department, or any large international organizations. He spend a considerable amount of time on the project, along with a number of similarly-minded collaborators. He received help from North Korean defectors, former Korean analysts, and even anonymous contributors who shared his goal: the world’s most comprehensive map of North Korea. Melvin released the latest version of the project in 2009, and it has been downloaded over 250,000 times since then. North Korea has thus become just a little more accessible to the rest of the world.

Curtis Melvin is part of a new breed of internet commentators: the citizen-spy. The internet has made “crowd-sourcing” a buzzword. No matter how seemingly unimportant the task, dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people will help out in exchange for feeling like part of something greater. This crowd-sourcing mentality is approaching areas previously considered exclusive to governmental intelligence or large international entities. Freely available tools like Google Maps are helping push forward that change. Thirty years ago powerful satellite technology was available only to world superpowers. Now, you can look at photographs of North Korean nuclear sites on your smartphone in Starbucks. This shift in informational availability has made projects like North Korea Uncovered possible.

While the availability of information opens up tremendous possibility, it is not without its limitations. There are a lot of dams in North Korea Uncovered. From a zoomed out perspective, they clutter the map leaving little else visible. There is undoubtable some value in mapping the water distribution system of the country, yet the number is symptomatic of a larger issue: you can’t get much detail from a satellite. Dams are easy to spot on Google Earth, but they may not be the most relevant feature of a particular area. North Korea Uncovered is built in such a way to prioritize clearly visible landmarks while excluding geographic complexity that makes up a society. The citizen-spy may be uninhibited by governmental oversight and bureaucracy, by they are still limited by their data. Google Earth can show you what a place looks like, but it doesn’t understand why it is meaningful. These interpretive gaps are not a problem if the project is used within a larger context, but it is unable to stand on its own as a guidebook to North Korea.

North Korea Uncovered is a monumental achievement that shows the possibilities of the citizen-spy. To this day, North Korea Uncovered serves as one of the most authoritative maps of North Korea available. It is a vital piece of data for North Korean scholarship and analysis. Because it comes from an independent source, Curtis Melvin acting as a citizen-spy according to his own moral code, North Korea Uncovered lacks the intuitional bias one would expect of a similar project done by the US government or a NGO. The CIA World Factbook has its own map of North Korea, but it is immediately followed by the CIA’s own evaluation of the country. North Korea Uncovered freedom from such a strategic framework enhances its value as an objective piece of data, but doesn’t provide us with a clear path forward. It can tell us where the bodies are buried, but it can’t tell us what to do about it.  


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