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Google officially names and marks North Korean 'gulags' on updated Maps

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After years of blank spaces, Google is updating its North Korean maps with data from Map Maker — and in the process, it's putting a name to the prison camps that dot the country. Buzzfeed's John Herrman notes that a search for "gulag" in North Korea brings up a string of camps across the country, including the "Yodok Gulag," known as the setting of the powerful memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang. The camps have been seen in Google's satellite imagery for years, and activists like those at the North Korean Economy Watch have used the company's data to keep tabs on their development. But only now are they being specifically identified on Google's Maps, and with a particularly politically loaded term, albeit one that's hardly considered hyperbolic by most people. Map Maker users have even left "reviews" of the camps, mostly satirical but sometimes in protest of prisoners being held there.

"Maps are inherently political."

When we asked Google for the reasoning behind the term, it placed the onus on Map Maker. "Nomenclature for points of interest come from and are moderated by the Map Maker community. For any of our Map Maker countries — whether India or North Korea — we rely on users’ knowledge of a place, and other Map Maker users check and verify labels based on a variety of sources." Though it didn't directly address the politics of the change, it's also clear that introducing any terms on a North Korean map (or even leaving it blank) would involve some kind of semantic implications. "Maps are inherently political," says Eric Gundersen, whose company MapBox has worked with crowdsourced map designs in places like Afghanistan. "At the end of the day, even showing that something's not agreed upon is political."

North Korean data started showing up on Google Maps not long after executive Eric Schmidt returned from a trip to the country, where he extolled the virtues of the internet to officials in one of the world's most isolated societies. Google, however, says there is "absolutely no connection" between the two events. "This data has been in Map Maker since 2009. It commonly takes the Map Maker community a few years to generate enough high quality data to be moved into Google Maps proper." Even if it's entirely coincidental, it still means one of the largest companies in the world is identifying North Koreas prisons as death camps — though whether it will make any difference to a notoriously belligerent and indifferent government is another matter.