Digital Mapping: North Korea Prison Camps

Our presentation focused on the process of digital mapping, specifically Google Maps.  There are particularly compelling images of North Korea Prison Camps that were discovered through Google Maps and displayed on a website called FreeKorea.

Prison Camps in North Korea are a lot more prevalent than one might think. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has made many startling estimations regarding prison camps in North Korea: 120,000 people are currently imprisoned and over 400,000 people have died from starvation, disease, torture and execution.  North Korea’s political corruptness is demonstrated through the fact that anywhere from 600,000-2.5 million people have died from starvation, while the government continues to filter a lot of money to military and luxuries for officials and high-ranking members.[i]  The discovery of these prison camps was a result of satellite images captured for Google Maps and the technology surrounding digital mapping.

Digital Mapping is not a new development.  Beginning in the 1970’s the government sent out satellites to collect images; however, the information collected from these satellites was not provided to the public.  Google Maps was launched in 2004, which marked the beginning of public accessibility to satellite images taken of the earth.  The GeoEye-1 is one of the satellites that Google uses to collect images.  This satellite was released in 2008 and a more updated satellite, the GeoEye-2, was released in 2011.  What is really interesting about these satellites is that they are funded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.  Google, a private corporation, is dependent on the government for funding of these satellites. Additionally, the government receives images of a higher resolution than what is distributed to Google from the satellites.[ii]  This demonstrates that the government still has some control over the actions of Google, even though it is a private corporation.  The government involvement in the process influences the subjectivity of Google Maps.

These images draw the line between photographs and maps. On one hand, the objective pictures from the GeoEye-1 and other cameras are indisputable. On the other hand, a level of subjectivity is addressed whenever a new place is photographed. Our class had a great discussion about this phenomenon. Another part of digital maps is the level of radical thought applied. This is more specific to the maps on These maps have been thoroughly labeled and written about in detail. Although they do not display the radical means by which a cartographer like William Bunge might use, these maps address the social tension versus the social construction of the photographs. It is as if these maps are being provided in order to tell us how unfair it is to be a prisoner in these camps. The cartographer, or, in this case, labeler, asks the audience to imagine themselves in an oppressive place like this. It brings back memories of German concentration camps during WWII. This appeal to, specifically, Americans, brings us to the final point of American Exceptionalism. The cartographer appeals to our pathos asking us to do something about these terrible places. The detailed, and frankly brutal, descriptions of camp life and these maps demonstrate exceptional American practices – an ability to help North Koreans if we only knew what was happening.

These satellite photos and ability to see over the walls we are not suppose to bring up the question of morality and whether this should be considered spying. The class also debated about whether these practices should be legal or not. As to a conclusion about ethicality of digital mapping – there are convincing arguments for both sides.


[i] “North Korea’s Largest Concentration Camps on Google Earth,” One Free Korea,

[ii] “Google’s Super Satellite Captures First Image,” Wired,



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