The poetic interpretation of the word Korea—“Land of High Mountains and Sparkling Streams”—derives from the word Koryo, the name of an ancient kingdom on the peninsula. Mountains and streams are indeed the dominant characteristics of Korean terrain. Korean artists over the centuries have tried to capture the peninsula's dramatic landscapes of peaks and valleys in their paintings. There are so many mountains on the peninsula that only onefifth of the land can be cultivated. The rest is too high or steep. Most of the mountainous terrain is located north of the DMZ, where there are few arable (farmable) plains. The few remaining dense forests are located in the far north. These rugged regions are sparsely inhabited and mountain dwellers often live isolated lives in dispersed hamlets. Although the highest mountain chains are found in the far north, they also extend southward, running parallel and close to the peninsula’s eastern seaboard.
More farmable lowlands and river valleys are found in the south and west, where populations are larger and highly concentrated. The only major inland city is Taegu, in the south. The highest Korean mountain is Paektu (“No Head”) Mountain, a magnificent ancient volcanic landmark. A rugged riverine boundary between North Korea and its neighbors, China and Russia, is formed by the diverging flows of the Amnok (Yalu) and Tuman Rivers from their sources near Paektu Mountain. North Korea's border with China is 640 miles long, but its border with Russia measures only ten miles. The highest mountain in South Korea is Halla Mountain, a volcanic peak at the center of Cheju Island. It is located about 90 miles south of Mokp'o, across the Cheju Straits. Halla Mountain can be translated into English as “The Peak that Touches the Milky Way.”
The Korean peninsula, together with many of its southern offshore islands, forms a nearly complete land bridge from Chinese Manchuria (in the northwest) to Japan (in the east). The southern tip of the peninsula is only about twenty miles from Japanese territory. Korea’s strategic location between China and Japan explains a great deal about the political, economic, and cultural history of East Asia.
Although relatively small, Korea has a surprisingly diverse climate. One of the outcomes of the peninsula's mid-latitude location is its seasonal climate. There are very distinct temperature and moisture patterns for each season.
Spring is short and characterized by the sudden onset of warmth, melting the snow of the long, cold Korean winter, particularly in the north. As the snow melts and harsh March winds subside, the brown hills and plains suddenly turn green. The rainy season begins in late June or early July. Summer is very hot and wet, particularly in the southern half of the peninsula. These conditions are typical of a summer monsoonal East Asian climate. Monsoon is an Arabic word meaning “seasonal wind shift.” During the summer drifting masses of moist air move inland from the Pacific Ocean toward Russian Siberia. During the winter the winds “shift” to the opposite direction.
Annual late summer storms called “typhoons” also can bring torrential rains and powerful winds, causing floods, landslides, and extensive damage to property and crops. The end of the typhoon season coincides with the onset of fall. The reverse monsoon drives the moist air back out to sea, and cool, dry air masses out of Russian Siberia make skies increasingly clear. Fall is short and delightful, both clear and colorful, but the winds grow bitter cold again too soon. The increased cloudiness and snowfalls of the long Korean winter return.
The seasons do not manifest themselves in the same way everywhere on the peninsula. Because of the peninsula’s north-south orientation, the differing heights and positions of mountains and plains, and the varying distances of inland locations from the surrounding seas, seasonal conditions can be very different in various areas. For example, January at the snowless foot of Halla Mountain on Cheju Island is much milder than January at the snowbound foot of Paektu Mountain in North Korea.