Revealed on Google Earth: North Korea's secret free market

But a worldwide network of amateur sleuths has been watching a different trend emerge in the Stalinist state: Capitalism.

This grassroots group of North Korean observers has watched the growth of village markets via satellite photos courtesy of Google Earth. They compare notes and analyze photography on the Web site “North Korean Economy Watch” (www.nkeconwatch.com).

“There’s a whole bunch of small-scale private enterprises that have sprung up,” said Curtis Melvin, founder of the site and an economist at George Mason University where he’s working toward his doctorate degree. “With Google Earth, you can scroll back through time from the most recent satellite photographs and see how these markets are growing.

“In large towns you can see multiple markets, but you can find them in every town and every city,” Melvin said.