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North Korea Uncovered: The Crowd-Sourced Mapping of the World’s Most Secret State

Today’s guest post is by Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography and Map Division. Mr. Moore earned a Master’s degree in History from Cleveland State University and a Master’s of Library Science from Kent State University. He is the chief editor and a contributor for the Division’s journal, The Occasional Papers. He teaches Korean for the Library of Congress Asian-American Association.

Above, is an excerpt from the 38 North Digital Atlas. 38 North is a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Copyright © 2009-2016. Image courtesy of Curtis Melvin.

Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, will discuss the crowd-sourced mapping of North Korea, which resulted in one of the most detailed maps of North Korea that has ever been available to the public.

Melvin will present “North Korea Uncovered: The Crowd-Sourced Mapping of the World’s Most Secret State” at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 24 in the Mumford Room on the sixth floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. The event, free and open to the public, is hosted by The Philip Lee Phillips Map Society, the Friends Group of the Library’s Geography and Map Division.

North Korea is one of world’s most secretive societies. Melvin sought to cast a light on the mysterious state, and from 2006 to 2009, he employed Google Earth to create “North Korea Uncovered.” Melvin has gone on to help develop “38 North: DPRK Digital Atlas,” which depicts thousands of buildings, monuments, missile-storage facilities, mass graves, secret labor camps, palaces, restaurants, tourist sites, main roads of North Korea, and even includes the entrance to the country’s subterranean nuclear test base, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.

In his lecture, Melvin will discuss the origins of the North Korean atlas, the challenges of utilizing open-sourced and crowd-sourced information, and the future of his project.

Melvin’s project is unique and noteworthy for its extensive use of publicly available satellite imagery, along with other innovative forms of data collections, such as gathering information from persons who have visited North Korea or from defectors and tracking the publicly announced movements of former leader Kim Jong II and current leader Kim Jong Eun to geo-locate buildings and facilities.

According to Melvin, there are special train tracks that carry VIPs to oases of luxury in the impoverished nation. He said, “Several elite compounds have private train stations. We can follow the railway lines through the security perimeters and into the elite compounds.”

Melvin describes the efforts of “citizen cartographers” who contribute geo-data to the atlas as “democratized intelligence.”

A contributor to the website “38 North” and editor of the blog “North Korean Economy Watch,” Melvin has been cited in most major media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He received a master’s degree in economics from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Georgia.

The Philip Lee Phillips Society helps to develop, enhance and promote the collections of the Geography and Map Division by stimulating interest among map collectors, map producers, geographers, cartographers, and historians. The society encourages financial donations to supplement the Library’s acquisition of rare maps. The Society is named in honor of Philip Lee Phillips (1857-1924), the first Superintendent of Maps when the Hall of Maps and Charts was established in 1897.

Individuals requiring accommodations must submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

A sample image from North Korean Economy Watch. Image courtesy of Curtis Melvin.

A sample image from North Korean Economy Watch. Image courtesy of Curtis Melvin.

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