How did this mapping initiative get started?

When the “Engage DPRK” Mapping Initiative was being conceived in 2011, there was no public online resource that provided a comprehensive overview of foreign engagement in the DPRK. For foreigners who wanted to get involved with work in the DPRK, it was difficult to know how to even begin to answer questions such as:

  • What can I do to work with people in the DPRK?
  • What are others doing?
  • Who is being reached?
Furthermore, there were only a few resources that allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the country, especially about life in cities or counties that are not commonly featured in the media.

For those wanting to learn more about the everyday lives of the DPRK people, it was difficult to imagine life in the DPRK beyond what one could piece together from limited media reports, that described either the rich elites in Pyongyang or those struggling in the countryside. Korean language resources provided a better picture, but for English speaking audiences, information was very limited.

Consequently, the “Engage DPRK” Mapping Initiative aims to help those who want work inside the country by illustrating the different foreign engagement activities that have taken place inside the DPRK. Additionally, by learning about the various humanitarian, business, or educational activities, users can begin to better understand people’s living circumstances throughout the country, especially in areas that are often overlooked by mainstream news coverage.

By identifying the various activities throughout the country, ranging from noodle factories and retail stores to goat farms and vaccination programs, we endeavor to gain deeper insight into the living conditions of local communities, the kinds of projects that are possible, and the types of working relationships between foreigners and the DPRK government and citizens that make for successful, sustainable projects.

Why map out foreign engagement?

Many people want to know what is happening inside the DPRK, but few foreigners have extensive, on-the-ground access that allows for a perspective that is truly reflective of what life may be like for the average citizen. However, for those who want to engage with the country and its people, understanding how the lives of the citizens may be changing (e.g. living standards and expectations) is critical. One proxy for achieving this understanding is through tracking foreign engagement taking place inside the DPRK.

Engagement, which we define as the development of relationships based on trust and an alignment of motivations, is difficult to execute cross-culturally and the DPRK is no exception. There are many barriers, such as different languages, norms, standards, and expectations. There is no single formula or method for successfully developing working relationships with the DPRK people at various stages starting and implementing a project, but this map shows that people have been able to engage continuously since 1995, and these engagement efforts have varied in terms of types of work as well as duration.

This project seeks to illustrate the diverse work that is being done across several sectors throughout the DPRK, provide a starting point for those who want to get involved, and help people gain a more nuanced understanding of the country. The projects featured on this map occurred between 1995 and 2012 and were implemented by more than 450 bilateral, multilateral, non-governmental, non-profit, as well as for-profit organizations.

This project does not make a case for or against engagement with the DPRK.  Additionally, at this phase, the map is not intended to be an evaluative tool to assess the impact of foreign engagement activities in the DPRK; to be one, the map would need to have far more in-depth data on impact measures, such as beneficiaries and funding amounts, as well as more intricate tools for analysis. However, the map is a starting point to help foreign organizations and individuals get a better sense of the current foreign engagement landscape in the DPRK, and identify possible areas for new opportunities. 

What are the guiding principles for the data behind the map?

Transparency and information sharing are core values of this project, but they are not pursued at all costs and are not the end goal. Ultimately, we want to aid in fostering sustainable engagement with the DPRK people, and we do not want to disrupt the work of organizations that have been carefully and diligently established. Hence, the information showcased on the map is a reflection of diligent attempts to be accurate while respecting the security and sensitivities of those working inside the country. The data gathering process was guided by the following principles:

  • Consolidate publicly available information: When possible, we relied on information already made public by organizations, or other reputable sources, through the internet or other publications.
  • Gain consent to use non-public information: When using data about projects from our interviews with organizations, we gained consent from the organizations to use the information on the map.
  • Prioritize organizations’ preferences: When organizations expressed preferences in how to present project information, we accommodated those requests.
  • Prioritize consistency: As the goal of this project is to provide a comprehensive overview of engagement, we focused the data required for each project to four data points: project name, project description, years of operation, and city/county location. If one or more of these data points were missing, the project was not displayed on the map, even if we were aware of its existence. 

How was the data collected?

Project Data:

The primary data source for the map was publicly available information from authoritative sources including:

  • organizations’ websites, newsletters, annual reports; multiple news coverage on one activity;
  • Relief Web by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs <>;
  • 38 North Digital Atlas <> and NK Uncovered (Google Earth);
  • the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Website <>;
  • and the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (대북협력민간단체협의회) <>.

Contrary to common perception, there is a notable amount of information available regarding foreign organizations’ activities in the DPRK. In recent years, organizations have been able to disclose more openly basic information about their projects’ locations and activities. While there is large variance in the amount of disclosed details, the basic information necessary for constructing this map has been widely available.

For organizations that have a more discreet or unknown public profile, we attempted to contact them directly and request information about their projects. Organizations that were open to providing information to the mapping initiative voluntarily supplied data about their projects and gave us permission to share the data. 

There may be other organizations that we are not aware of, so we encourage users to provide information or introductions to foreign groups that are working in the DPRK. Additionally, if organizations request the withdrawal of their information from the mapping initiative, we will accommodate their requests.

Depending on public demand, we plan on updating the map once a year. As with all large-data dependent projects, there is a one-year lag necessary for collecting and uploading the data. For additional information on future plans for the project, including the potential for crowd-sourcing the data, please refer to the Next Steps section of the website.

DPRK Data:

For descriptive data on the DPRK that are included in the base layers and location information, we first looked to DPRK-sourced documentation.

For population statistics, we used the 2008 DPRK census, which was conducted in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). There have been more recent population estimations from other sources, but as they are modeled projections, we decided to use primary data. When data from the DPRK was not available, we utilized United Nations sources (e.g. World Food Program) and other widely known international organizations (e.g. International Federation for Red Crescent Societies) that have each had a long-standing and extensive presence in the DPRK.

For data that was necessary for mapping, we used and cross-checked information through Google Maps, Google Earth, Wikimapia, and other reputable mapping sources, such as 38 North’s Digital Atlas. Geographical information was always cross-checked with other Korean language sources, including the Korean Wikipedia since changes in DPRK administrative regions are more immediately reflected in Korean language resources, and original sources are easily verifiable through this website.

Finally, when using romanized versions of Korean words, especially for location names that include a soft P or T such as North Phyongan or Taedong County, we applied the format used by the DPRK.

For additional information on the data, please refer to the “How to Use and Apply” section. 

For updates on data uploads as well as interesting insights on engagement in the DPRK, please follow us on Facebook.

Who is part of the initiative?

Founder, partners, sponsor, advisors, interns, and volunteers

Jiehae Blackman is the founder and director of the “Engage DPRK” Mapping Initiative. Her background is in applied research and international development; she has a B.A. in Economics and Social Anthropology from Harvard University and an M.A. in Conflict Management and International Finance from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She has been working on DPRK-related issues for the past eight years and her previous experience with data visualization and interactivity was through her role as Head of Research and Production of the Legatum Prosperity Index.

In 2011, Ms. Blackman was introduced to various engagement activities in the DPRK through Reah International, an organization that plays a bridging role between a large global network of professionals seeking opportunities for involvement with the DPRK and groups working inside the country. With Ms. Blackman’s desire to visualize the larger landscape of foreign engagement in the DPRK and Reah International’s aim to understand the opportunities that may be available for its professional network, the “Engage DPRK” Mapping Initiative was born.

The initiative is financially supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Grant Program, which supports work towards sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula. Additionally, Azusa Pacific University provided oversight to ensure that research was conducted in an ethical and credible manner. Finally, due to the complex nature of this issue, the project has an advisory committee of DPRK experts and specialists in foreign engagement, including Scott Snyder from the Council of Foreign Relations and Dr. Eul Chul Lim from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies.

While Reah International and Azusa Pacific University are Christian organizations and the U.S. Institute of Peace is funded by the United States Congress, this project is a non-religious and apolitical initiative. All partners, sponsors, and supporters of this project are advocates of creating a public and objective tool that can function as a starting point for those interested in learning more about ways to help and engage with the DPRK people.

This initiative has also been supported by the work of interns and volunteers who have been instrumental in the research and development process. Special thanks to Melissa Bleck, Annie Tsai, Venus Chui, Gloria Kim, Janice Yoon, and Jin Lee.