• Joey Lee

Impossible Routes

Cover image

Impossible Routes

I've been thinking about routing engines for my upcoming course (titled: All Maps Lie) and what they reveal. Projects like Roads to Rome explore creative and aesthetic possibilities of routing engines and what those visuals can reveal about geography, infrastructure, and ultimately about history and politics.

Routing engines possess a magic quality - they make sense of dozens of competing variables (e.g. traffic, transport mode, etc), apply those considerations across an infinity of combinations of vector paths, and result in a decisive set of instructions on how to get from A to B. Routing engines can help break the "fog of war" while traveling to familiar and unfamiliar places and ultimately help us to make sense of space, distance (both physical and mental), and the "costs" of making our way through the world.

This post is about a little experiment looking at routing engines from the perspective of "impossible routes", that is, routes that, for whatever reason may be physically possible, but politically impossible or vice versa. In this stream of consciousness, I took a look at the results of routing from Seoul in South Korea to Pyongyang in North Korea both by land and by air. The following sections contain some background and some screenshots from this quick exploration.

Note: this is totally explorative and is not conclusive or indicative of any reality except for the observations and my own personal readings of the "data."

Quick Background

"The bifurication between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them. One story has it that the secretary of state at the time, Edward Stettinius, had to ask a subordinate where Korea was." - Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

The Division of North & South Korea

The DMZ - demilitarized zone - between N.Korea and S.Korea is drawn along the 38th parallel. It is strange because it doesn't divide along any real topographic or natural features, but rather is just an arbitrary drawn line which attempted to cut the Koreas in half by land area. As Barbara Demick writes in her book Nothing to Envy, "Nothing about it suggests that there is a natural place to carve it in two".



A zoomed out view of the Koreas shows almost comically the separation of the two entities by proximity to ideology with Communism (e.g. Russia and China) to the North vs. Capitalism (Japan) to the south. The division of the Koreas along the 38th parallel gives hints into the history of the involvement of these different competing actors in shaping how we've come to know Korea today.

A short trip into history starting from the end of the 500 year rule of the Chosun Dynasty (one of the longest lived monarchies in world history, Demick) in the late 1800s paints a picture of a changing cultural and class structure in Korea. By this time, as early as the 1870s, Russia, China, Japan, and the US started to increasingly turn their interest towards Korea as a strategic location, a source of natural resources, and eventually even labor (i.e. Koreans forcefully drafted by Japanese to contribute to war efforts in WWII). The fate of Korea and the division of the country can be traced back maybe even before the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1876 with Korean nationalism being tested by the massive structural shifts in Korean society.


With the Russo-Japan war in 1904 and the eventual occupation of Korea by Japan from 1910 all the way until 1945 after WWII (35 years!), we can see how the stories of Korean nationalism, struggles for independence, resistance, and survival played out in a divided Korean peoples. On one hand you have Korean nationalists who, after decades of oppression, look to communism (and the continued support of communist countries - Russia and China were important actors in supporting Korean independence) as more equitable and progressive alternative to the repressive life imposed by their capitalist occupiers. On the other hand, you have those who identified the metaphorical red flags of life under communism and looked perhaps for more conservative outcomes for the development of Korea's future. Hildi Kang's "Under the Black Umbrella," chronicles anecdotes from Korean life under Japanese occupation and the kinds of struggles, everyday resistances (e.g. christianity, not taking a Japanese name, organizing anti-Japanese meetings or even fighting directly in resistance forces bring), complacencies, and percieved/recieved benefits that different Korean experiences were afforded during this time. These stories help to express the variety of Korean peoples' experiences that might have come to shape which Korea people would end up in -- whether by choice or not.

There's a whole lot more to unpack, but the point is that the division between the Koreas is not so simple and that the dividing line across a latitudinal band beguiles this complex history. A lot of different actors have played a role in shaping the geography of the country. Naturally, the space between the two Koreas for me is a perfect place to start exploring how the past has made its way into "the future" in our tools and technology. Situating this exploration in routing engines as a means of exploring this history is just one of the myriad ways of drawing connections with this past and its influence on our tools and understanding of space.

The next sections are short explorations of different artifacts from routing engines and data pulled from Google Transit and other publicly accessible routing engines.

Routing via Google Transit

If we search for routes within North Korea by road, we see that the routing engine returns results as we might expect.


We even get interesting photos and street view images from the city. I chose this particular image because you can see some weird blurring effects that give it a kind of GAN effect which was intriguing and added a bit to the surreal quality of these "inside" views:


So far things are pretty "normal" except for the question that arises: "what data are Google using to do route calculations in North Korea?" - A super interesting work by Wonyong So highlights the openstreetmappers of North Korea here - https://wonyoung.so/cartographers-nk. - that might speak to these data.

Where things start to get interesting is when we start to look outward. Routing clearly works within the country, but can we create routes from outside of North Korea? What does it mean when Google Maps tells us that there is no route found for the route between Pyongyang and Seoul? I would argue that in this case, the routing engine is reflecting the political impossibility that is baked in to Google's routing engine.


"Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for transit." - Google transit

Whether it is in North Korea or in Gaza (see exploration below), there are cartographic markers which indicate the boundaries in which the routing service might be restricted to. In the case of North Korea, there's this grey line that shows the division between North and South Korea and China. These grey lines - dotted or otherwise - seem to be the geographic bounds in which routing by land can occur and maybe where the logic that is built into Google Transit's routing algorithms know not to cross.



In the case of Gaza, it is not possible to route from within Gaza to the outside of those boundaries (see Gif in the section - Other Impossible Routes).

Flying out from Pyongyang

In my exploration I discovered a strange artifact in Google Transit which is that if we search google transit for flights from Pyongyang to other places across the globe, we actually get flight results.


Flying from Pyongyang to Shanghai


Flight from Pyongyang to Zurich


Flight from Pyongyang to New York

However there are no flights between Pyongyang and Seoul.


There are some patterns to the the temporal nature of flights from Pyongyang to other parts of the world. In general flights out of Pyongyang according to Google are limited.

In checking flights from Pyongyang to Zurich we can see that there generally flights out of Pyongyang twice a week: Mondays and Fridays. Assuming those flights are real, I would guess that maybe those Friday trips are for leisure and the Monday trips are for business? That might even be a stretch. One thing we might consider is actually how big those planes are, how full they might be, and if the routes between far flung places like Zurich are rather just that flights go between Zurich and Beijing or Shanghai relatively frequently, and the connection between those intermediaries to Pyongyang simply exist, but are not actually possible.

In a departure from the impossibility of traveling in or out of North Korea, the flight results — even if they may not be real — spark some imagination of being able to travel in and out of the country in the same way that the OSMR routing engine visualizes (see section below).


On the way from Zurich to Pyongyang, there are flights going from Zurich (via Frankfurt and Beijing) to Pyongyang almost every day. In this case we can likely read this as being a flight that is going from Zurich to Beijing and then a more regular flight from Beijing to Pyongyang.


I did a quick look at trips outbound and inbound flights from Pyongyang to Singapore and it looks like flights generally occur only once a week outbound on Mondays and inbound twice a week on Mondays and Fridays.


As a quick first exploration, what is fascinating is to think about the mechanisms that allow people to leave a country that is otherwise very difficult to leave. Some questions this experiment raises/reinforces are:

  • How do these people (the ones that can leave and come back) experience the world? By seeing very different realities, I'd imagine it would be shocking to live between worlds. Or maybe the privileged few that are allowed to travel do not feel the stark difference because they already live a more privileged existence in North Korea and are privy to the various luxuries and lifestyles that people experience in other parts of the world.
  • How often do people defect on these trips? What are the mechanisms for extradition in the case that people do defect?
  • Is this just a bug in Google Flights?


Scene from Crash Landing on You where North Korean soldiers are meant to retrieve their "dongmu" (comrade) and end up in a sauna/bath house for an evening.

When my land-based route did not return any results in Google Maps, I turned to other openstreetmap based routing engines to see what other results I might get.

Routing via OSMR - OpenStreetMap Routing

If we search using an alternative routing engine like OpenStreetMap Routing, what we find is an "impossible" route politically, but a clear pathway along the major arterial roads which would otherwise connect these two divided entities.




What is lovely about this visualization is that not only do we see a simple route from A to B (from Pyongyang to Seoul) we also get turn-by-turn instructions on how to travel between the two cities. We get an estimate on how long it would take to get from between those cities and somehow, knowing this number - only 3.5 hours - puts the mental distance between North Korea and the "outside" world into context.

Other (Im)possible Routes

Routing in Gaza / No routes out

From Tel Aviv to Gaza


Google Maps doesn't recognize Palestine.


Trapped in Gaza - Gif Showcasing Google Maps Routing doesn't work outsize of the Gaza Territory. You can route from within, but there's no options out.

trapped in gaza gif

Again, I turn to OSMR to explore the impossibility of routes. Here we can see that OSMR ignores the political division and draws a route right out of the Gaza strip.


Concluding remarks

We often see technology as ways of envisioning and shaping our future. It is not a new argument, but one that stands true that technology is just a mirror of the society and culture that built those technologies.

On one hand seeing the line drawn from Seoul to Pyongyang is a hopeful kind of reflection of the world that I'd like to see. Here, the technology doesn't recognize the boundaries we've created and simply looks for the shortest path between "us" and "them." Isn't this one point of making technology — to help us get closer to others?

On the other hand, technology that doesn't understand or acknowledge politics and history can be deeply problematic. It reflects missing considerations and attentions to details about "real life" and the power relations that shape our lives. There are strong notes of techno-positivism in the stories that these "impossible routes" tell -- they can be percieved as lies, but they can also be indicators for other things like the lack of capacity of a small open source project, lack of diversity in the team building the product (whereby those impossible routes might otherwise be accounted for), and simply ignorance to those considerations.

There is however a happy accident of seeing a barrier broken down with a simple visualization — a 3.5 hour drive between here, an easy list of turns to follow, and nice drive along the highway to a place with people that I'll never know but maybe would've known. There is also the cruel reality of making politics clear in the technology so as to not confuse or endanger.

Routing engines possess a special quality, a kind of magic that is simultaneously complex and simplistic. I think there are opportunities to explore this dual nature and "impossible routes" to make sense of our past and also render the future.