How North Korea is more open than South Korea
Published 29/05/2014 | 14:27
Until last year the whole of North Korea was nothing but a featureless grey block on Google Maps.
But the country added roads, buildings and railway lines in January 2013, just weeks after chief executive Eric Schmidt visited government officials and warned that they risked further economic decline unless they allowed citizens greater access to the internet.
Data is usually bought from commercial sources, but as this was unavailable for North Korea they used information submitted by citizens via the Map Maker service.
At the time Google said in a blog post that creating accurate maps was a crucial first step towards helping people understand parts of the world that are unfamiliar to them: "While many people around the globe are fascinated with North Korea, these maps are especially important for the citizens of South Korea who have ancestral connections or still have family living there."
Now it has gone a step further and added directions, for driving and walking - there is no option for public transport as timetable information is not available.
But the feature is likely to be of limited use. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that North Korea had just 25,554 kilometres of road in 2006, of which only 724km was paved. Private car ownership is virtually nil, and the movement within the country is strictly regulated.
The directions for driving give an estimated journey time assuming a speed of around 105km/h. However, North Korean refugee Jung Jin-hwan told New Focus International that the highest speed limit is actually 70km/h.
Roads are split into separate lanes with individual speed limits, and people are only allowed to use certain lanes depending on their status. Senior officials can use the fast lane and travel at 70km/h, for instance, while ordinary citizens - should they be lucky enough to have access to a car - are forced to stick to the slow lane and travel at a maximum of 40km/h.
Strangely, this move now means that North Korea has more permissive rules that South Korea, on online mapping at least. Laws relating to national security, brought in after the Korean War, mean that Google is only allowed to provide public transport directions between two points, and not driving routes.
The export of map data is forbidden, meaning that Google cannot legally process the data at its US servers to create driving directions on demand. Google is pressuring the country to change the law, and argues that it makes it virtually impossible to compete with domestic competitors which are able to provide such services internally. South Korea is one of the few countries in the world where Google is not the most commonly used search engine.