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`Citizen Spies` Using Web to Uncover North Korea

Posted May. 23, 2009 09:46,   


A swimming pool and water slide at North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s summer home. Airfields tucked into valleys. A rocket launch pad and nuclear facilities. A concentration camp.

Photos of these places have been taken by "citizen spies" utilizing “Google Earth,” the satellite image service of the world’s largest Web portal.

One of the leading citizen spies on North Korea is Curtis Melvin, a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University in the U.S. state of Virginia. Having gone on two group tours to the North in the early 2000s, he started a project two years ago to put the communist country`s secret facilities on an online map.

The Wall Street Journal introduced Melvin’s effort yesterday by saying, “Melvin’s 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.”

Melvin drew a North Korean map by attaching the photographs of facilities he captured via Google Earth to his Web site “North Korea Uncovered (www.nkeconwatch.com).” He traced the location of the facilities based on pictures and news articles made public by North Korean authorities and testimony from North Korean defectors.

With the help of other netizens who sent Melvin location information and pictures of the North, he said the map has become more accurate.

More than 35,000 people have downloaded Melvin’s file and the site’s information, which provide the locations of 1,200 dams and 47 restaurants as well as nuclear facilities. The data is being shared by more than 10 Web sites specializing in the Stalinist country.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, provided the location of the North’s markets, including one in Pyongyang.

Joshua Stanton, a lawyer based in Washington, sent a satellite image of Camp 16, a notorious concentration camp in the North. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback used the picture to criticize the North’s human rights abuses in a Senate hearing.