Unveiling North Korea

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

 

So my friend Curtis Melvin is kind of a badass. The hardcore libertarian "vacations" in authoritarian countries like Zimbabwe, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

He has also been to North Korea–twice–and and in 2007 started a fascinating project where he’s using Google Earth, news reports, and North Korea’s own government propaganda to pull the veil back on the country’s secretive infrastructure. Since he started the project, collaborators from all over the world have joined the effort, including defectors and former military intelligence officials.

Today, the Wall Street Journal has a front page article about Melvin’s project.

More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin’s file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as “nuclear issues” (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its 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.

“Here is one of the most closed countries in the world and yet, through this effort on the Internet by a bunch of strangers, the country’s visible secrets are being published,” says Martyn Williams, a Tokyo-based technology journalist who recently sent Mr. Melvin the locations of about 30 North Korean lighthouses…

People soon started sending him locations they knew, from tourist sites to airfields tucked into valleys near South Korea. Mr. Melvin says that sadness for North Koreans’ plight, and the fascination of discovery, motivated him to continue.

Many updates later, Mr. Melvin and his correspondents have plotted out what they say is much of the country’s transportation network and electrical grid, and many of its military bases. They’ve spotted what they believe are mass graves created in the 1995-98 famine that killed an estimated two million people. The vast complexes of Mr. Kim and other North Korean leaders are visible, with palatial homes, pools, even a water slide…

Melvin and his collaborators have also been able to identify and locate prison camps the North Korean government says don’t exist.

It’s nice to see Melvin get some much-deserved attention for his work. You can download the “North Korea Uncovered” file here.

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30 Responses to “Unveiling North Korea”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    If I was Melvin, I wouldn’t be going anywhere near North Korea for a while, even across the river in China. If they can arrest two journalists, there is nothing to stop the North Koreans from reaching over, grabbing him, and trying him as a spy and enemy of the revolution.

  2. #2 |  Aresen | 

    I have a feeling that, in two years, Melvin has put together a better package of information than the CIA has in 60 years.

  3. #3 |  Marty | 

    Curtis Melvin’s doing more damage to N Korea than Heather Brooke is to the politicians in Britain and Radley is to the MEs in Mississippi!

    Good job!

  4. #4 |  CRNewsom | 

    @#2 Aresen: I can’t believe I am about to use this phrase…

    In the CIA’s defense, Melvin has a lot more people working for/with him than the CIA. A LOT less money, but more people. I think this should be an exercise in how to complete some projects on a minimum budget with maximum effect.

    /Very similar comparison as that of Microsoft to the open source movement.

  5. #5 |  Aresen | 

    CRNewsom

    Was there any reason that the CIA could not have interviewed those same people or consulted the same open sources?

    I realize some people would be reluctant to talk to the CIA, but OTOH, Melvin does not have access to the various high-tech gadgets for listening and probing owned by the CIA.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Wow, this is amazing. What a brilliant idea. I’ll bet Kim Jong-il now actually knows this guy’s name and hates him. That by itself seems sufficient to warrant some kind of lifetime achievement award.

    Nothing scares those who thrive on secrecy and lies like exposure. Ask any cop.

  7. #7 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #5 Aresen

    Was there any reason that the CIA could not have interviewed those same people or consulted the same open sources?

    I was wondering the same thing. I was thinking that the CIA would wind up getting a lot of false information, at least if they did it under the auspices of U.S. intelligence gathering.

    On the other hand, maybe they could hire someone else to do it for them. Hell, maybe they did.

  8. #8 |  Tokin42 | 

    #4

    In the early 90’s I was a young 2Lt Army Intel officer. I thought I was up to date on every hot spot on the planet until I got drafted by my commander to get involved in a TS briefing on NK. I can honestly tell you, that is the only time I ever left a briefing scared. NK is not only a mess, but a scary mess. The CIA knows everything that is going on in that nation, they’d just rather the rest of the world not know.

    I’m impressed with this guys work and more power to him. As I’ve mentioned before what the free governments on this planet have allowed to occur in that country is shameful.

  9. #9 |  Mike T | 

    The CIA knows everything that is going on in that nation, they’d just rather the rest of the world not know.

    There is probably also a lot of overlap between these guy’s informants and the CIA’s. Part of the CIA’s mission is to use intelligence to sabotage other countries for the benefit of the US. Selectively helping others release information that NK wants held back, but that isn’t strategically important to the US would be useful to the CIA’s mission.

  10. #10 |  Mike T | 

    #6

    Being that high up on NK’s shit list should also come with a personal bodyguard detachment from Delta Force because the Great Boufant is insane enough that he might want this guy dead.

  11. #11 |  SJE | 

    “I’m impressed with this guys work and more power to him. As I’ve mentioned before what the free governments on this planet have allowed to occur in that country is shameful.”

    I thought a coalition of more than a dozen nations fought a huge land war to stop North Korean expansion. Casualties: over 474,000 on our side, 1.2-1.6 million on the other, and est. 2 million civilians. It cost the US so much money that it effectively kick-started the post WWII-Japanese economy. It almost went to nuclear conflict with China and Russia. At that point, we settled.

    Are you suggesting another war? With a nuclear armed country?

    So, what else are we expected to do? NK has almost no economy, so embargoes are worthless. The people to blame are (1) the Kim family and the associated ruling elite (2) the Chinese and Russian governments that have protected and enabled the North Koreans.

    I think that “we” have done an enormous amount already, and have tried to steer NK into a better place. We give shelter to those who try to escape (unlike China, who gives them back). We provide food aid.

    There is only so much you can do.

  12. #12 |  Solipsist | 

    >Was there any reason that the CIA could not have interviewed those same people or consulted the same open sources?

    Cost effectiveness and man-hours. The man-hours put into this project by volunteers is not a good use of the CIA’s limited number of man hours (opportunity cost etc).

  13. #13 |  Bernard | 

    That’s really fucking cool (my intelligent contribution for the day).

  14. #14 |  Edwin Sheldon | 

    So my friend Curtis Melvin is kind of a badass.

    This is at the same time the most awesome introduction ever, and the most accurate.

  15. #15 |  Aresen | 

    @ Tokin42 #8 & SJE # 11

    I give kudos to both of you.

    My CIA snark was just that – a snark. It is a fact of life with intelligence agencies that usually only your failures are known. (The successes are only known when there is a political reason for it or 50 years after the fact.) There is a rather glib tendency to dismiss the CIA on the basis of the usually unfavorable stories that come out.

    I agree with Tokin42 that it is shameful that NK has been allowed to continue – but I put the blame mostly on the Chinese and Russians and the apologists in the west who have helped prop it up.

    As SJE points out, it is impossible and foolish to think of changing the NK situation via military action.

    I do hope that, someday soon, the Dear Leader and his cadre get the Ceaucescu (sp?) treatment.

  16. #16 |  SJE | 

    My comment was directed entirely at Tokin42’s comment. It’s well meant, I accept. But any libertarian would caution you to beware of the calls to “do something.” My own mea culpa: I remember thinking that Cato’s position on the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions was naive and shortsightedly isolationist, until a lot of what they warned about turned out to be spot on.

  17. #17 |  Mister DNA | 

    Being that high up on NK’s shit list should also come with a personal bodyguard detachment from Delta Force because the Great Boufant is insane enough that he might want this guy dead.

    You don’t really need to be on any sort of Shit List to be in danger from the North Korean government.

    I was reading something about Kim Hyon Hui, the North Korean agent who planted explosives on KAL Flight 858 in 1987. Her Japanese teacher was a woman who had been abducted off a beach in Japan at the age of 22.

    By the way, when Radley Balko introduces someone as “kind of a badass”, he’s not fucking around.

  18. #18 |  Tokin42 | 

    #11 & #15:

    Both your points are well taken, but none of it changes the fact that for 40 years everyone sat around and let china, with a minor assist from the soviets, dictate what was going to happen with N. Korea. Up until the 90’s, when NK got nukes there were plenty of opportunities to get something done. The chinese absolutely could have made the Kim family disappear. The millions dying of starvation were completely ignored thanks to the “realists”. Kissinger and baker were more concerned with keeping the status quo instead of doing what was right.

    I know that this is something I have a tendency to get up on my high horse about but….it is what it is.

  19. #19 |  Packratt | 

    That’s really cool!

    But, how did he get Google Maps to show all those tags when I couldn’t do that for my police misconduct mapping project?!?

  20. #20 |  SJE | 

    Tokin42: “we let china…dictate what was going to happen with N. Korea”

    When you say we “let” the Chinese dictate, I suppose thats right.

    Its also sensible, when you consider that China is right next door, shows a great interest in what happens in NK, and has an army of more than 1 million people, nuclear weapons. The US is half the globe away.

    Of course, don’t forget that
    (a) Russia also borders NK
    (b) NK has a huge army
    (c) Seoul is within artillery range of NK.

    In another sense, I dont think it is true that we have just “let” China dictate.

    1. Every recent U.S. President has tried to do something about North Korea. Clinton teamed up with all the regional players to try and solve NK (including China). So its not like no one cared.

    2. There is a limit to what we can do. The last time we really tried to change things was the Korean war. We almost completely occupied NK until the Chinese intervened to support the NKs.

    3. We are doing what our regional partners want. Lets imagine that the NK regime was struck down by a lightning bolt. What next? The regional players do not want NK to collapse, because the entire region would be distabilized. Even if there were no military issues, the flood of refugees would cause huge social unrest. West Germany is only now getting over its take over of East Germany, and East Germany was the most educated and wealthiest part of the Warsaw Pact. NK vs SK is like modern society versus medieval. The neighbors want to gradually modernize and open NK to facilitate the reintegration of NK and SK.

  21. #21 |  The Difference Between North Korea And Azeroth? | Popehat | 

    […] Korea is smaller and better mapped, and orcs are more noble than communists. [M]y friend Curtis Melvin is kind of a badass. The hardcore libertarian “vacations” in […]

  22. #22 |  Roy | 

    “I have a feeling that, in two years, Melvin has put together a better package of information than the CIA has in 60 years.”

    Snark aside, that is only a feeling, not a fact. I suspect – also not a fact, just a suspicion based on experience – that the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agencies have put together a hell of a lot more information about North Korea than Melvin has.

    “…what the free governments on this planet have allowed to occur in that country is shameful.”

    It’s ironic to see a statement like that on here. Does no one ever read history anymore? As others have asked: What would you have the “free governments” do? This is especially ironic when you consider that ever since that very same Korean War 59 years ago, any time one of the worlds “free governments” has tried to “do something” – anywhere – it has generated a monumental shit-storm with half the population.

  23. #23 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Team America World Police said it all much better. And it included puppet sex you must see to believe.

  24. #24 |  chance | 

    The IC has a well developed open source program – meaning why spend the money and man hours when you can just let Mr. Melvin do it for you? Here’s a link: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol48no3/article05.html

    When I was in Korea we had more intelligence gathering assets pointed at the DPRK than probably anywhere else on Earth. There isn’t much going on there that CIA (or more likely, DIA) doesn’t either know or strongly suspect. I concur with Tokin’s first comment. Some of the briefings will scare the piss out of you – until you realize that they are actually downplaying the fear factor, then you go for a thunder run to dull the pain.

  25. #25 |  Tokin42 | 

    #23

    That might just be one of the best all-time scenes in a movie.

  26. #26 |  Tokin42 | 

    #22

    Roy, so the moral justification for allowing millions to die of starvation, tens of millions to suffer under a crazed totalitarian government is “democratic governments screw shit up”?. Really?

  27. #27 |  SJE | 

    #26. “so the moral justification for allowing millions to die of starvation, tens of millions to suffer under a crazed totalitarian government is “democratic governments screw shit up”?. Really?”

    Tokin, I don’t want you to think that this is personal, but I get back to the point that “we” don’t just “let” tens of millions suffer. We do what we can. And it isn’t enough to help. It does not mean that we can’t continue to try. But it doesnt mean that we are somehow guilty or amoral in our treatment of the NK people. Just that we can only do so much.

    I have seen people dying. You can always do something to prolong life but, at some point, you realize your own limits.

    Moreover, you realize the system’s limits: do you spend 100K giving a 90 year old 6 extra months of life, or give 5 kids a college education? Do you spend $X and X lives helping Darfur, or North Korea? Why not invade Burma or Zimbabwe: there is suffering, starvation, and their armies are much weaker and the countries less chronically messed up than NK. But in any choice, denying one access to the limited resource may be hard, but it does not equate with immorality.

  28. #28 |  Roy | 

    “…so the moral justification for allowing millions to die of starvation, tens of millions to suffer under a crazed totalitarian government is “democratic governments screw shit up”?.”

    Those are entirely *your* words, not mine.

    However, my question still stands.

    What, exactly, would you have the worlds “free governments” do?

  29. #29 |  bobby | 

    I had to google around for this … Mark Steyn’s excellent column about liberals always calling for humanitarian missions, just not supporting the military portion that would be required….

    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0305/steyn030705.php3

  30. #30 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Curtis Melvin on Rachel Maddow | 

    […] friend Curtis Melvin, whom I posted about last week, was on the Rachel Maddow show recently to talk about his North Korea […]

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