Friday, October 23, 2015

Naver Maps updates North Korea imagery (but Google's is better)

In a recent blog post cataloging their latest updates to their map imagery, Naver Maps included a bit about a big update to their North Korean satellite imagery, which was previously only available up the regional-level of zoom. Now, thanks to imagery released by the Korean National Geographic Information Institute (국토지리정보원), you can zoom to a level of resolving individual streets.

From their post:

Naver Maps imagery from before this update, which was unavailable beyond zoom level 5.

Naver maps imagery after the update, reaching current maximum of level 12. 

Naturally I was curious, and went to see how this new imagery compares with what other major portals offer. As the highlight in the Naver Maps blog post seems to be Yanggakdo, a small island in the Taedong River that runs through Pyongyang, that seemed like a good spot for comparison. Let's take a look, after the jump...

Zoom A: Yanggakdo on Naver, Daum, and Google

Above is Yanggokdo on Naver Maps, Daum Maps, and Google Maps, about as visible as it was in the Naver Maps blog post at "Level 12" zoom.  From that distance, all three services look pretty similar. But let's take a closer look.

Zoom B

Now we zoom in closer to see the Pyongyang International Cinema Hall (평양국제영화집), which somehow has some mildly amusing Google Reviews with an interesting header image. The building looks to have some interesting details, so can we take an even closer look? 

Zoom C

Google Maps. Click for this location in Maps.

If we're on Google, then yes. If not, no. Both Naver and Daum crap out beyond what I showed at "Zoom B". You just get those "imagery not available" tiles. The image above is as close as Google can zoom (you can zoom more, but no new higher-resolution imagery will load), which is actually pretty detailed, and dramatically clearer than either Naver or Daum. Here's the map embedded, if you want to explore for yourself:

The Takeaway

So if you want satellite imagery of North Korea, and you're a civilian, Google blows Naver and Daum away. The eternal irony: that Google coverage of North Korea is dramatically better than that of South Korea.

I have some thoughts about this though.

  1. Firstly, I think it's great that Naver wants to publicize imagery of North Korea. Even if the quality of the imagery being posted is inferior, it's good that they (along with Daum) are taking the initiative to provide mapping service of North Korea in the Korean language. I think gestures like these, which the Korean government is actually quite good at, like prepping rail links and police, is both good PR and are good practical moves for eventual unification. Having map and navigation data ready on day 1, in Korean, on portals (South) Koreans are already familiar with, makes sense. 
  2. Secondly, I'm highly suspicious that the reason for the inferiority of the imagery of the Korean portals' maps has nothing to do with technological skill. I'd wager that it has more to do with potential violations of the National Security Law. I've already mentioned some of the restrictions on map data. I would not be surprised if higher-detailed maps of North Korea are restricted, within South Korea that is, for military-use-only. Google, which processes its map imagery data abroad and has no business office in the North, so they can publish as they wish without going afoul of regulators. But as I've said before, data for South Korea has export limits that prevent them from offering their full Google Maps experience here [see here and here]. Local partner organizations sometimes help with that. 

Anyway, nice to see the local portals working to offer more of "Korea" to Korea.  Leave your bets in the comments as to whether you think it'll be Naver or Google we're using in 5~10 years to navigate our self-driving cars down the mean streets of Kaesong.

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