As Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, returned to the United States from a four-day visit to North Korea just weeks ago, a blogger has discovered what is likely another prison camp in the country using none other than Google Earth.
The blogger, Curtis Melvin, posted the revelation on North Korean Economy Watch after Google Earth updated its satellite imagery around existing Camps 14 and 18. While Camp 18 has been closed for a few years now, the area of interest looks similar to those of the other camps with a visible security perimeter.
Melvin indicates the new camp was likely built between December 2006 and September 2011 – the time between each Google Earth satellite update. Confirmation of whether or not this space is actually a camp will be hard to achieve from the secretive nation. However, Melvin narrowed in on the new images, showing a staff entrance, guard posts, residential units and an abandoned coal mine.
The new facility was built right next to Camp 14, where defector Shin Dong-hyuk escaped and later revealed the brutality that exists within its walls. There is said to be some 200,000 people incarcerated in these camps for “crimes” such as trying to contact the outside the world, “insulting” a member of the Kim dynasty, or even just by being related to an existing prisoner (referred to as “rooting out the bad seed”).
Amnesty International has reported that six of the camps, or gulags, in the remote and mountainous region of the country, are the most severe in abuse with rumored gas chambers and chemical experiments conducted on the incarcerated.
As Google Earth made this discovery possible by an interested member of the public, and has acted as a tool in the past to corroborate stories of defectors, North Korea is used to negative publicity made available by an open internet. Allowing Google’s CEO to visit was likely a move to garner positive publicity.
Schmidt’s visit to the country was criticized as being poorly timed and of little benefit for substantive revelations or dialogue. His motives for traveling to the country have been attributed everywhere from a business interest in reaching into the untapped corners of the world, to the pursuance of online freedom, to a mere fascination with those areas still unconnected from a restricted or banned use of the internet. Perhaps it’s a combination of them all.
However, critics said Schmidt was being used by the North Korean regime for “political advantage,” as former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton wrote in the New York Daily News: “North Korea has repeatedly welcomed prominent Americans to help elevate its stature. It is seeking direct negotiations with Washington, for in the distorted vision of the nation’s leadership, this might lead to full diplomatic recognition and ‘equal’ status in the world community.”
Schmidt may have tried to appeal to the leadership’s lust for power and influence by citing the risk of remaining isolated, inevitably leading to economic decline that will “affect their physical world,” rather than citing the right to information of its citizens. He said to reporters at a Beijing airport, “Once the internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do something.”
Yet ironically thanks to Google, the spotlight is again on North Korea for its expansion of suppressive activity on its people, rather than any possibility for enhanced communication or connectivity.