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The Geography of the Koreas

The DMZ border. (Dennis Kruyt/flickr)

The DMZ border. (Dennis Kruyt/flickr)

A geographic exploration of North and South Korea, including its location, climate, production and how Korea perceives herself.


Location and Landscapes
An extension of the eastern side of the Eurasian continent, Korea is a relatively small though prominent peninsula. One can easily locate Korea on a world map or globe by following 127º east meridian north from the equator to the middle latitudes. Note where this meridian intersects with the 38º north parallel. That exact intersection is located near the heart of the Korean peninsula. It is also quite close to an important geopolitical feature called “the demilitarized zone,” or DMZ. The DMZ is a temporary political boundary formed by the Korean Armistice of 1953, which ended the hostilities of the Korean Conflict (1950–53). The Korean Conflict began as a civil war, expanded into an international conflict fought on Korean soil between communism and capitalism, and has yet to be resolved after almost fifty years under an uneasy truce.

The DMZ divides the peninsula by separating North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) from South Korea (Republic of Korea). The DMZ is 2.4 miles wide and centers on a demarcation line that extends for 151 miles between the Yellow Sea and the East Sea (or Sea of Japan). The DMZ represents a strange combination of peace within tension. There is peace within the zone because it is “demilitarized” and “off limits” to soldiers and civilians: that means plants and animals inhabiting the zone are protected from humans. Yet, there is an uneasy tension between the opposing combat-ready forces of North and South who still face and intimidate each other across the zone.

At present South Koreans call the peninsula Hanguk, while North Koreans call the peninsula Choson. South Korea divides itself politically into nine provinces and six special cities. North Korea divides itself politically into nine provinces and three special cities.

The Korean peninsula is about 600 miles long, but at its shortest width (near the DMZ), it is only 120 miles from coast to coast. Many South Koreans, especially younger ones, describe their peninsula as “tiger-shaped.” The tiger is a traditional symbol that drives away misfortune, but it also represents the urban and aggressively successful modern South Korean economy. Other Koreans, especially older ones, still think of the peninsula as “rabbit-shaped.” The rabbit represents the wisdom of the peninsula’s traditional agricultural economy, which is rapidly becoming a memory. Both the tiger and rabbit appear in many Korean folktales and paintings and even on South Korean exports.

At nearly the same size and latitude as the state of Utah, the entire landmass of the Korean peninsula measures 84,565 square miles. The DMZ division allocated more territory to the North (47,541 square miles) than to the South (38,024 square miles). However, in 2000, the population in the South (est. 46,000,000) far exceeded that of the North (est. 24,300,000).

Just south of the DMZ, in vulnerable proximity to North Korean military forces, is Seoul, South Korea’s capital. The fourth-largest urban center in the world, Seoul has crowded, bustling, streets, skyscrapers, subways, industries, grime, smog, and almost ten million inhabitants, most of whom live in lofty apartments that resemble thousands of beehives surrounding the central city. To the north of the DMZ (and at a safer distance from South Korean military forces) is the city of Pyongyang, the moderately sized and meticulously clean capital city of North Korea. Both of these cities are located near the western coast and along rivers that flow into the shallow Yellow Sea. Indeed, most urbanized areas on the peninsula are located along or near the highly indented western and southern coasts, where there are numerous fishing villages and vast tidal flats. Modern Korean engineering and ingenuity have overcome many natural obstacles to oceancommerce along the shallow coast of the Yellow Sea. Artificial ports are crucial to the productive agricultural and industrial economies of large concentrations of inland populations, like those of Seoul, Taejon, and Kwangju. There are wide coastal plains in the southwest. Mokp’o, a large city and port near the southwestern tip of the peninsula, is threshold to a vast archipelago of thousands of islands and islets. The archipelago region extends eastward from Mokp’o, past the naval port of Chinhae, to Pusan.

In contrast to the serrated Yellow Sea coastline and southern archipelago, the peninsula’s eastern seaboard is generally uniform with extensive unprotected coastlines. Except for the extreme northeast and southeast coasts and river valleys, the East Sea coastal plains are narrow and relatively unpopulated. Although East Sea coastal waters are much deeper than those of the Yellow Sea, there are few natural deepwater ports. Even the harbors of Pusan, Ulsan, and P’ohang in the South, and Wonsan in the North, are more engineering miracles than gifts of nature.