The Korean Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Rim from northwestern Asia. The peninsula is bound by the Sea of Japan (the East Sea) and the Yellow Sea. North and South Korea share the peninsula. These countries have been separated by the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) since 1953. To the west and north is China and to the far north along the coast is Russia. Korea is separated from China by the Yellow Sea and the Yalu and Tumen Rivers to the north. The Yalu and Tumen rivers form the actual border between North Korea and China. Japan is located just east of the Korean Peninsula across the Korea Strait. The Korean Peninsula is now split between South Korea and North Korea. The capital city of North Korea is Pyongyang, and Seoul is the capital of South Korea.

The topography of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous with arable or cultivable land in high demand. Approximately 70 percent of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous. The bedrock is predominantly composed of volcanic and granitic rocks that have been severely modified by glacial processes over the past twenty-five thousand years. The highest peak in North Korea rises more than nine thousand feet. The Korean Peninsula can be thought of as four general areas:

  • Western Region with an extensive coastal plain, river basins, and small foothills
  • Eastern Region with high mountain ranges and a narrow coastal plain
  • Southeastern Basin
  • Southwestern Region of mountains and valleys

Off the southern and western coasts of the Korean Peninsula are about three thousand small and mostly uninhabited islands, all within the territory of South Korea. South Korea’s largest island has an area of 712 square miles. It is the highest point of land in South Korea, at 6,398 feet above sea level.

North and South Korea have very different, yet related, environmental issues, primarily related to the degree of industrialization. With a low level of industrialism, North Korea has severe issues of water pollution as well as deforestation and related soil erosion and degradation. Other issues in North Korea include inadequate supplies of clean drinking water and many waterborne diseases. South Korea has water pollution associated with sewage discharge and industrial effluent from its many industrial centers. Air pollution is severe at times in the larger cities, which also contributes to higher levels of acid rain.

The physical size in square miles of North Korea or South Korea is similar to the physical area of the US state of Kentucky. North Korea is slightly larger, and South Korea is slightly smaller. For centuries, Korea was a unified kingdom that was often invaded by outsiders. After the fall of the Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, the Japanese took control of the Korean Peninsula (1910) and controlled it as a colony. Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945 when the United States defeated Japan, forcing it to give up its colonial possessions. The structure of modern Korea is a result of the ending of World War II.

The conclusion of World War II was a critical period for the Korean Peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union both fought against the Japanese in Korea. When the war was over, the Soviet Union took administrative control of the peninsula north of the thirty-eighth parallel, and the United States established administrative control over the area south of the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea approximately in half and eventually established governments in their respective regions that were sympathetic to each nation’s ideology. The Soviet Union administered the northern portion; the United States administered the southern region. Politics deeply affected each of the regions. Communism dominated North Korea, and capitalism dominated South Korea. In 1950, with aid from China and the Soviet Union, the Communists from the north invaded the south. After bitter fighting, a peace agreement was reached in 1953 to officially divide the Korean Peninsula near the thirty-eighth parallel. Korea remains divided to this day. The United States has thousands of soldiers stationed along the Cease-Fire Line (or DMZ), which is the most heavily guarded border in the world.

Check out Esri’s story map, The Two Koreas, to understand and spatially analyze the two nations and their historical tension and conflict.

North Korea

The government of North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was formed with the leadership of Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, who shaped his country with a mix of Soviet and Chinese authoritarian rule. Having limited personal freedoms, the people worked hard to rebuild a state. Using the threat of a US military invasion as a means of rallying his people, Kim Il Sung built up a military of more than one million soldiers, one of the largest in the world. People could not travel in or out of the country without strict regulation. North Korea existed without much notice until the 1990s, when things suddenly changed.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, North Korea lost a valued source of financial support and oil. Without fuel and funding, many of the factories closed. Unemployment rates rose significantly. Meanwhile, China adopted a more open posture and began to increase its level of trade with the West. The result was that China began to lose interest in propping up North Korea politically. North Korea was facing severe problems. Massive food shortages caused famine and starvation. Thousands of people died. Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and the country lost its “Great Leader.” He had ruled the country since World War II and in the end, was deified as a god to be worshiped by the people.

The government dictatorship continued as the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong Il, took over the leadership role. Kim Jong Il, known as the “Dear Leader,” took repression of his people to new levels. Televisions and radios sold in North Korea can only receive government-controlled frequencies. Cell phones and the Internet are banned. The government takes a hard line against dissenters. If you are caught speaking against the state or taking any action to support dissent, you can be arrested, fined, placed in a prison camp, or executed. People are not allowed to leave or enter the country without government approval. Only a couple hundred tourists are allowed into the country per year and are closely escorted.

Kim Jong Il has taken hard measures to stay in power and to avoid yielding to the capitalist frenzy of corporate colonialism. He has nuclear weapon capability and has used his military weapons production as a bargaining chip against the United States and other world powers. North Korea has demonized the United States as the ultimate threat and has used state-funded propaganda to indoctrinate its people. North Korea’s government continually tells its people that the United States will invade at any minute and to be prepared for the worst. Propaganda has been used to create and enforce military, economic, and political policies for an ideology that supports the unification of all of Korea under Communist control.

North Korea is mainly mountainous; there is little quality farmland. While only 2 percent of the land is in permanent crops, about a third of the population works in agriculture. The best farmland in North Korea is located south of the capital city of Pyongyang. The capital is a restricted area where only the most loyal to the state can live. There is a severe shortage of goods and services. Electricity is not available on a dependable basis. Massive international food aid has sustained the people of North Korea. Outside food aid is accepted even though Kim Jong Il has continued a policy of self-reliance and self-sufficiency called Juche. Juche is designed to keep Korea from becoming dependent on the outside. The policy of Juche has been quite effective in isolating the people of North Korea and keeping dictator Kim Jong Il in power. The policy of Juche also holds back the wave of corporate capitalism that seeks to exploit labor and resources in global markets for economic profit.

One way that North Koreans are finding out about the outside world is through smuggled-in cell phones and VHS videotapes from South Korea. Popular VHS productions include South Korean soap operas, because of the common heritage, language, and ethnicity. The North Korean government has attempted to crack down on smuggled videotapes by going from home to home. Electricity is turned off before entering the home. Once the electricity is turned off, videotapes cannot be removed from the video player. The government agents then recover the videotape. Citizens found with smuggled videotapes are punished with steep fines or imprisonment. Desperate North Koreans have escaped across the border into northern China, where thousands of refugees have sought out better opportunities for their future. It is ironic to think that Communist China, with historically few human rights, would be a place where people would seek refuge, but China’s economy is growing, and North Korea’s economy is stagnant, which creates strong push-pull forces on migration.

South Korea

In 1993, South Korea became a fully-fledged democracy with its first democratically elected president. Seoul is the capital city and is home to almost ten million people. Seoul is located just south of the Cease-Fire Line, also known as the DMZ, which is referred to in general terms as the thirty-eighth parallel, even though it does not follow it exactly. The United States has many military installations in this area.

South Korea manufactures automobiles, electronic goods, and textiles that are sold around the world. South Korea is a democracy that has used state capitalism to develop its economy. After the World War II era, South Korea was ruled by a military government that implemented land reform and received external economic aid. Large agricultural estates were broken up and redistributed to the people. Agricultural production increased to meet the demands of the population. South Korea has much more agricultural production than North Korea and is, therefore in providing food for the high population density. A once-modest manufacturing sector has grown to become a major production center for export trade.

The fifty million people who live in South Korea have a much higher standard of living than the residents of North Korea. Personal income in the north is barely equivalent to a few dollars per day, while personal income in the south is similar to that of Western countries. The economic growth of the south was a result of state-controlled capitalism, rather than free-enterprise capitalism. The state has controlled or owned most of the industrial operations and sold its products in the global marketplace. Giant corporations, which forced industrialization along the coastal region, have promoted South Korea as the world’s leading shipbuilding nation. South Korean corporations include Daewoo, Samsung, Kia Motors, Hyundai, and the Orion Group. As an economic tiger, South Korea continues to reform its economic system to adapt to global economic conditions.

South Korea has announced plans to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of its energy and transportation networks. Government funding will augment efforts to create more green-based initiatives. Part of this effort will focus on lower energy dependency with environmentally friendly energy developments such as wind, solar, bike lanes, and new lighting technologies. High-speed rail service and increased capacity in electronic transmissions lines are planned as part of the next generation of energy-efficient technologies that will increase economic efficiency. These policies have been enacted to update South Korea’s economy and create new products for manufacturing export.

Buddhism was introduced into the Korean Peninsula, as were many other aspects of Chinese culture that had significant effects on Korean heritage. Buddhism has been a prominent religion in Korea for centuries. The teachings of Confucius are also widely regarded. About 30 percent of the population claims Christianity as their religious background; about 20 percent of the Christians are Protestant, and 10 percent are Catholic. This is the highest Christian percentage of any Asian country. Up to half of the population makes no claims or professions of faith in any organized religion. Before 1948, Pyongyang was a notable Christian center. At that time, approximately three hundred thousand people identified as Christian. After the establishment of a Communist government in North Korea, many of the Christians fled to South Korea to avoid persecution.

Unification of North and South

What if North Korea and South Korea would become unified again? In the field of geography, there is a concept of regional complementarity, which exists when two separate regions possess qualities that would work to complement each if unified into one unit. North and South Korea are the classic illustrations of regional complementarity. The North is mountainous and has access to minerals, coal, iron ore, and nitrates (fertilizers) that are needed in the South for industrialization and food production. The South has the most farmland and can produce plentiful harvests of rice and other food crops. The South has industrial technology and capital needed for development in the North. If and when these two countries are reunited, they could work well as an economic unit.

The harder question is how and under what circumstances the two Koreas could ever come to terms of unification. What about the thirty-five to forty thousand US soldiers along the DMZ? What type of government would a unified Korea have? There are many young people in South Korea that would like to see the US military leave Korea and the two sides united. The generation of soldiers that survived the Korean War in the 1950s understands the bitterness and difficulties caused by the division. This segment of the population is highly supportive of maintaining the presence of the US military on the border with North Korea. Unification is not likely to take place until this generation either passes away or comes to terms with unification. The brutal dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, with his claimed nuclear capabilities, has been the main barrier to unification. This is a political division, not technically a cultural division, even though the societies are quite different at present. The geography of this situation is similar to that of East and West Germany after World War II and during the Cold War. Korea may have different qualities from Germany, but unification may be possible under certain conditions, foremost being different leadership in the north.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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