The Problem of Mapping an Historically Paranoid Country Like South Korea

Today, it was learned that Google is having some problems with its desire to map South Korea. The reasons are varied, but certain little things like an eternal war footing with North Korea (they have a ceasefire, not an actual peace treaty from the war in the 1950s) and a history in South Korea of making sure that maps are a thing for government rather than the people, make it that much more difficult for a company that has a desire to map every kilometer of land that exists on the planet.

Strangely enough, I once dealt with this problem. Decades ago.

You see, I was a young counterintelligence agent working in Tonduchon, South Korea. Tongduchon was one of those tiny towns slightly south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in South Korea. Basically, the town consisted of peasants who were formerly farmers, newly crafted shopkeepers, and a military post of US soldiers who were tasked with defending the DMZ in case the north should decide to take a trip south. It was my job to assist in countering any intelligence gathering efforts of hostile armies, forces and entities. This meant I spent a lot of time out in bars, getting to know the local population and getting a real sense of the lay of the land.

At one point, I was talking to one of my colleagues in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) field office on post, and while we were downing a couple of Korean beers at a local bar, he remarked that it was really bizarre that we were both part of agencies that conducts investigations of the local area, yet neither one of us has ever been able to find a map of the area. Stores didn’t sell them. Our intelligence assets didn’t actually have them to give out to rank and file soldiers, although I’m sure they would have emerged overnight if a war was to have started the night before. Basically, if you wanted a map of the local area, you pretty much had to make one yourself.

So, I tasked my assistant at the time to go about trying to become an amateur cartographer. It was more of a joke than anything else, but he was one of those assistants who took a “hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea?” as a direct command, and he set out to start creating a rudimentary map of the local area, specifically the town of Tonduchon. To be honest, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, like an actual map, but it would at least be enough for us to put stick pins in it to designated what was going on in which location.

Still, for our purposes, and for the purposes of CID at the time, we really needed something a little more official.

So, I did what I normally did. I went to the one place I figured there had to be a working map of the area. I went to the local police station.

I should probably point out that counterintelligence agents back then had a weird relationship with the police agencies of South Korea. We were given national police identity cards that designated us as representatives of the national organization. It was one of those cards that I discovered worked well with some people and horribly with others. Let me explain. A colleague of mine in our office was one of those “America is great and is here to fix everything” kinds of agents. This meant that whenever he met with a local national, he tended to receive really bad results, and thus, determined that the population of South Korea was jealous of Americans and, thus, would rarely cooperate with anything that the US needed. He also spoke zero words of Korean, which meant he was always speaking through one of our translators.

I, however, was lucky enough to have been put through the Defense Language Institute to learn Korean, so when I went out into the population, I could have one on one conversations with the locals. Surprisingly, when you speak directly to people and respect them for being the experts in the fields they represent, you tend to get much different results than those received by others who treat the locals like foreigners. Strangely enough, that’s something we should have learned from the British and their adventures long before ours, yet for the most part, we kind of suck at learning from history. But I digress.

So, I went to the local police department and introduced myself. I discovered at this time that not once had anyone actually come to engage the local police or to ask them what they thought about what was going on. I found this out because the assistant police chief took me into a room where he showed me a ton of files that had been prepared to turn over to US representatives should they ever show up and inquire about what was going on in Tongduchon. I literally had to come back with three agents in order to carry all of the files out of the place and back to our field office. Keep in mind, this was a few years before databases and computer technology would have made this so much easier.

So, I sat down with the assistant police chief and asked him about maps. His answer was kind of surprising. He asked me if I was interested in accompanying him on a raid his people were going to be conducting later that afternoon. I said sure and then asked if it would be appropriate for me to invite one of my colleagues from CID (as I thought this was more their field than mine). He said sure. So, a few hours later, the two of us met the Korean police at a local nightclub and observed them raid the establishment. What I discovered they were doing was enforcing local ordinances and license checks. However, at the end, I noticed the assistant police chief was meeting with a couple of young prostitutes in a side room. Part of me thought the worst thoughts, thinking this was about hooking up two GIs with local prostitutes, but then discovered the reason we were there was to be introduced to these young women. They were informants for the local police, and he thought it might be a good idea to have us make contact with them as well (I discovered later it was more about the fact that I spoke Korean that caused him to think it was appropriate).

Anyway, a few days later, my assistant knocked on the door to my office to tell me that a young Korean man was at our door and wanted to speak to me. After he was let in, I discovered he was one of the local police officers. Once inside, he presented me with two envelopes, each one containing a map of the local area. He said one was for my friend (the CID agent who accompanied us).

That was how we managed to get a map of the local area back then. What I discovered is that sometimes you have to go through extra hoops to get the things you need, and sometimes you have to make friends where you weren’t planning to make them in the first place. What I find amazing is that South Korea is still so closed to revealing information as it was decades ago. I’m curious to see what Google will end up doing to accomplish their goals.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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