BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. North Korea, the bizarre and insular Communist dictatorship, has been busy, busy, busy. In the last month, Kim Jong-Il – or whoever’s running the country – has detonated a nuclear weapon, fired short range missiles, threatened war against anyone who interferes with its ships and, in the last week, sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years of hard labor. All were presumed to be attention-getting measures from a country that’s notoriously closed to outside scrutiny. What little we do know comes from a trickle of defectors, and from the skies above. For the last two years, a group of North Korea aficionados have been filling in the blanks on what we know about the country, comparing news reports to mapping details for what may be the civilian world’s most complete picture of the North Korean landscape. Curtis Melvin is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University in Virginia and founder of North Korea Uncovered. He joins us now to explain. Curtis, welcome to the show.
CURTIS MELVIN: Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, tell me how this site came about.
CURTIS MELVIN: Well, I was lucky enough, if that’s the right word, to visit North Korea in 2004 and 2005, and after my trips there I wanted to label all the places that I went on Google Earth essentially as a keepsake. I posted this information online, and more people who were interested in North Korea were able to take a look at it and notice things that I missed and add their own experiences. And, fast-forwarding a couple of years later, it has been downloaded over 125,000 times. We've put together a fairly remarkable project, I believe, that’s really North Korea’s infrastructure like few outsiders can ever see it.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some examples of what you've found?
CURTIS MELVIN: There’s only one 18-hole golf course in North Korea, and it is located about halfway between Pyongyang and Nampo on the West Coast. The site is probably most known in the West [LAUGHS] because Kim Jong-Il is renowned for his stellar golf game. It’s perhaps the most well-known story about him that he scored a 34 on this 72-par course, including five holes in one in his first game.
[BOB LAUGHS] They also say he’s a phenomenal bowler.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, he’s [LAUGHING] clearly a great man.
CURTIS MELVIN: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: In addition to recreational facilities, what else have you found?
CURTIS MELVIN: Well, the other interesting thing is that after the Soviet Union collapsed, the country suffered an extraordinary economic shock, and food became very scarce and, as a result, many people died. The numbers of casualties ranged from 300,000 to 3 million, but we will never really know because they didn't allow anyone in to get an assessment of that. The most authoritative number of casualties in the North Korean famine comes from Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute, and he calculates about a million deaths, using a number of innovative forensic techniques. And we can really get a visualization on what a million means when we look at the hillsides in North Korea and we can see the mountains literally covered in mass graves.
BOB GARFIELD: Quite a bit of what you do is simple observation – oh, there’s an image we hadn't seen before – and some of it is deduction. Tell me, for example, what you can learn by following power lines that you, you see from space.
CURTIS MELVIN: Well, this is a very rewarding and incredibly tedious part of the project. I mapped out the North Korean railway system this way, and now I'm doing the North Korean power grid. Doing the railway system, we can see that the compounds where the elites live have their own private train stations, where they can go from compound to compound without ever having to interact with ordinary people. With the electricity grid, we can see a similar sort of pattern, where the power grid essentially connects the main cities with elite compounds further out. There’s many parts of the country that do not have electricity, yet there’s other places where the only power grid that exists connects elite compounds with the main grid.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two American journalists who were just sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for allegedly violating North Korea’s borders. Is there any imagery that you have that can shed any light as to what might have taken place?
CURTIS MELVIN: Well, what I've been told is that they're being kept in a townhouse just outside of Pyongyang, so I'm very confident they're in one of two facilities. One of them is where Kim Il-Sung used to live, northeast of Pyongyang, before they began building presidential compounds, and now many foreign heads of state or foreign diplomats stay there when they go to Pyongyang. And the other is an equally nice walled-off compound not far away. I do not believe they will be sent to a real North Korean prison or gulag. The North Koreans would never allow a foreigner into those places to see them, and they would certainly never let anyone leave after they did.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, these are answers you've given quite authoritatively, and you have not said one single thing that can be divined from a satellite photograph. You are obviously very plugged in to North Korea in ways that have nothing to do with satellite imagery.
CURTIS MELVIN: Well, the great thing about running the webpage I run, which is North Korean Economy Watch, is for several years I've built up a lot of connections with people who are interested in North Korea, journalists all across the planet, businesspeople who go in and out, people who used to live there, people who worked there and aid workers. So I have a number of different people passing information to me, and that’s really helped me develop a thorough understanding of the country. In fact, just yesterday I was working on an update for this program because Google Earth updated satellite imagery for two cities in the last two days, and just in those two cities I can see the growth of the markets. I saw them close one market and open two others, including an entire street full of markets. So these signs are optimistic that the North Korean government, even if it would like to control the spread of markets, at this point it can't do anything to stop them.
BOB GARFIELD: Curtis, thank you very much.
CURTIS MELVIN: It was my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Curtis Melvin is a doctoral candidate in economics at George Mason University and founder of North Korea Uncovered.
"Tired Of Fighting"
by The Menahan Street Band