© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Science & Technology

Western Bloggers Use Google Maps To Expose North Korean Prison Camps


Detailed satellite images are helping to expose a system of huge prison camps in North Korea, camps that North Korea says don't even exist. Western governments and human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 political prisoners are held in these camps under horrific conditions. And a small contingent of Western bloggers is scrutinizing the satellite images, trying to map the camps and look for new detail.

Curtis Melvin is among them. He started the website North Korean Economy Watch. Thanks for coming in.

CURTIS MELVIN: Hi, how are you doing?

BLOCK: You have a recent discovery based on new Google Earth images, a possible new camp. What did you see that struck you?

MELVIN: So in January, Google uploaded lots of new satellite imagery from all over North Korea. And I have the ambition to go through all of it and check for what's new, things that have changed, look for developments within the country.

And a colleague of mine contacted me and asked me a question about Camp 18 because there is actually a debate as to whether Camp 18 has been closed.

BLOCK: These numbered camps, who numbers the camps? Where do these numbers come from?

MELVIN: Those would be set by the Ministry for State Security in North Korea, essentially the KGB of North Korea. And as I began to look around Camp 18 and Camp 14, which are right next to each other, I noticed a new security perimeter had gone up approximately 20 kilometers in circumference next to the existing Camp 14.

BLOCK: How could you tell? What did the perimeter look like?

MELVIN: Well, in the past, in 2006, when we had the last available satellite image of the location, there is no security perimeter at all. There's a village there, there's a coalmine that had fallen into disuse. And with the new satellite imagery, we can see where they've actually carved out a clearing, making a very visible straight lines with positions for guard posts stationed at regular intervals.

BLOCK: Can you see a detail as granular as, say, there are guard houses along this perimeter? What does it look like? How can you tell?

MELVIN: Yes. Little squares. The big tell is, one, they're right up next to the border. Two, they're identical all the way around, for the most part.

BLOCK: When you and other people who are studying these images try to corroborate them, what do you do to try to flesh out what you're seeing in these images?

MELVIN: Initially, the hard work was done by the Committee For Human Rights in North Korea in 2003 because when they published the initial reports with the satellite imagery, then we had a base to work from. And so - in North Korea, they tend to do everything the same way. And once you know what a particular kind of place looks like in North Korea, it's very easy to spot that same kind of thing.

BLOCK: What tells you this is a camp?

MELVIN: Oh, it's a security perimeter guarding nothing in particular except what appears to be a regular village. Most of the factories, military factories in North Korea have walls on them. A lot of them even have guard turrets on them. But there's something going on inside that's very obvious that they're protecting.

And in the case of these labor camps, there's nothing inside. You see regular houses, maybe some fish ponds or something like that there. But there's nothing that tells you there's anything special or horrible about it.

But ultimately for me to be convinced, we have to have eyewitness accounts.

BLOCK: And by eyewitness accounts, you're talking about defectors, people who had been in North Korea, in many - some of them in these camps who have managed to get out.

MELVIN: Or have had relatives who have been put in there or had experience dealing with some of the guards or might have been guards.

BLOCK: How would those accounts back up what you see in these images, exactly?

MELVIN: Well, if they can describe the place- which has been done many times in the past - they can usually describe the area without looking at a satellite image and then there's an amazing overlap between what they describe and draw, physically draw, with the satellite imagery. And that's been done a number of times. I actually identified a regular prison that someone had testified about this place and drawn a picture of it. And I was actually able to look at the satellite imagery on Google Earth and match the hand drawing with the satellite pictures.

BLOCK: Lined up?


BLOCK: You devote a lot of time to poring over these images and trying to figure out just what's going in North Korea. Why do you do it? What keeps you going?

MELVIN: At this point, North Korea is a very exciting country because it's undergone a radical amount of change in the last 10 years. And satellite imagery is one of the few ways that we can get eyes on the ground in North Korea because there's simply no other way to visualize or brings these things to bare in the West.

BLOCK: Curtis Melvin, thanks for coming in.

MELVIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Curtis Melvin started the website North Korean Economy Watch. We were talking about satellite images of North Korean prison camps as seen on Google Earth.



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.