Unveiling North Korea

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So my friend Curtis Melvin is kind of a badass. The hardcore libertarian "vacations" in authoritarian countries like Zimbabwe, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

He has also been to North Korea–twice–and and in 2007 started a fascinating project where he's using Google Earth, news reports, and North Korea's own government propaganda to pull the veil back on the country's secretive infrastructure. Since he started the project, collaborators from all over the world have joined the effort, including defectors and former military intelligence officials.

Today, the Wall Street Journal has a front page article about Melvin's project.

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…

People soon started sending him locations they knew, from tourist sites to airfields tucked into valleys near South Korea. Mr. Melvin says that sadness for North Koreans' plight, and the fascination of discovery, motivated him to continue.

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…

Melvin and his collaborators have also been able to identify and locate prison camps the North Korean government says don't exist.

It's nice to see Melvin get some much-deserved attention for his work. You can download the "North Korea Uncovered" file here.

NEXT: Government Foils Government Plot

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  1. Goddamn, that is awesome. Radley, can i roll with your crew?

  2. “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)”

    Interesting, why the disparity in restaurants and dams? Is it because dams are easier to spot than restaurants? Or are there really only a few dozen restaurants in the entire country of North Korea? I hope they didn’t miss Pyongyang’s new pizzeria (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7945816.stm).

  3. At least the North Koreans have free healthcare.

  4. Great piece, thanks for sharing.

    There’s a great little video series around too. It’s just eerie, like stepping into the pages of 1984. Start out slow but picks up.

    http://www.vbs.tv/video.php?id=1442316090

    You really have to feel bad for the ordinary Norks living in their isolated little information bubble.

  5. Or are there really only a few dozen restaurants in the entire country of North Korea?

    Supposedly it really is the case that there are only a few restaurants.

    Radley, can i roll with your crew?

    I wanna roll with
    The gangsters
    But so far they all think
    I’m too white n’ nerdy

  6. vice magazine (which really does amazing journalism through its videos) went to north korea. they had to sneak in through china. they got an escorted tour through the country (the ‘guide’ would often yell at them or tell them to turn off the camera) showing them the best parts.

    one thing that sticks out is when they go to a restaurant. no one is in there but the crew and the guide. they got served a really elaborate meal that was “to show us that they really had lots of food and niceties” or something similar.

    check it out

  7. Melvin isn’t the only badass, guys. I wore sneakers to work today in clear violation of company dress code. I mean hey, if you’re going to let us wear jeans today, I’m pushing the envelope.

    Bow down, bitches.

    1. Lmfao. Now you are one intense badass.

  8. I have a feeling that Melvin has put together better information in two years than the CIA in 60.

    (X-posted to The Agitator)

  9. Curtis Melvin fuckin’ ROCKS! Big time.

  10. An idle thought,

    Did Ted Turner contribute to the data base?

  11. North Korea’s official website is pretty priceless. http://www.korea-dpr.com/

    Be sure to look for references to the giant reinforced concrete wall that the imperialist Americans built after the Korean war to prevent the Korean people from reunification.

  12. I have a feeling that Melvin has put together better information in two years than the CIA in 60.

    The WSJ piece mentions that some of the contributors to the effort are ex-military. I wonder how many people are using the map to get around (what they feel are/were) unnecessarily restrictive security rules on information.

  13. Commies are dumb.

  14. So where are Laura Ling and Euna Lee?

  15. Oh, and Kim Jong-Il is a juchebag.

  16. I think it’s terrible that Americans are intruding on a purely internal matter. You are all imperialist dogs!

  17. Second rule is: don’t talk to commies.

  18. Awesomeness. I continue to be aghast at the so-called progressive left’s hypocrisy on North Korea. They’re happy to express concern for the plight of the poor beneighted workers being “exploited” by sinister capitalism corporations. But not a fucking word about slave labor camps and mass starvation in North Korea.

  19. In addition to the vice.tv doc mentioned above (which is great), there is a National Geographic doc Inside North Korea by Lisa Lee (the sister of the CurrentTV journalist now being held in North Korea) which is very good.

    There’s also one called by some Dutch dumbass who thought the North Koreans were getting a bad rap in the Western press. It’s called A Day in the Life, and it follows a “model worker” and her idealized, happy proletarian life at the factory she works at. It’s still worth watching, though, because the picture it presents of what the North Koreans want to show the world is so very creepy…

  20. I’ve burned a lot of hours Google-Earthing North Korea. Surreal.

  21. They’re happy to express concern for the plight of the poor beneighted workers being “exploited” by sinister capitalism corporations

    Exploited American worker: Jobs Bank program gets rolled back (slightly) after company goes bankrupt. Some workers now must show up for work and produce.

    Exploited North Korean worker: Dead.

  22. This subject is badass. The second sentence of the article.

  23. Maybe Obama can get these kids to do a song for his election campaign in 2012.

  24. even a water slide

    OK, I’m in. I doubt Castro has a water slide. Nrth Korea is better than Cuba.

    Case closed.

  25. I’ve burned a lot of hours Google-Earthing North Korea. Surreal.

    Me too. Palaces, empty city streets, a knock of the Arc de Triumph, terrible squalor, anti-aircraft emplacements every ten feet (some of them obviously fake), to say nothing of the World’s tallest, unoccupied hotel.

    North Korea is an utterly fascinating place to look at via Google Earth.

  26. Epi see me rollin’, he hatin’

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  28. It’s a shame their Stalinist, they have pretty good infrastructure judging from that map. If they had a free market economy and a more pragmatic gov. they could be South Korea in 20 years.

  29. I’m so ronery.

  30. not a fucking word about slave labor camps and mass starvation in North Korea.

    I seem to remember a time when they still tried to deny it. I guess they gave that up when he Berlin wall came down.

    The lefty line these days tends to be “oh, they’re not REAL communists.”

    -jcr

  31. I wonder how many people are using the map to get around (what they feel are/were) unnecessarily restrictive security rules on information.

    My first thought was if this is what is publicly known about North Korea, it’s pretty stupid to try to keep secrets about U.S. installations.

    Information wants to be free.

  32. I recently stumbled upon this very strange Swedish initiative. It would be interesting if they acually made it work. It would also make me sick to see people sporting killer chic jeans from the worst country on the planet…

    http://www.nokojeans.com/

  33. To the total moron who stated that at least the North Koreans have free health care. And the government imprisons entire families for any expression of faith such as Christianity. Torture and murder are common in N. Korean prisons. The N. Korean government’s main exports are counterfeit currency, arms and nuclear technology to rogue nations like Syria and Iran. Could this be the worst government on the face of the earth ? Quite possibly.

  34. If you really want to have some fun the DPRK website has a message board.

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