Korea, Democratic People's Republic of

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Korea, Democratic People's Republic of

North Korea

  • Area: 46,540 sq mi (120,540 sq km) / World Rank: 99
  • Location: Northern and Eastern Hemispheres, eastern Asia, northern half of the Korean Peninsula bordering the Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan, between China and South Korea.
  • Coordinates: 40°00′N, 127°00′E
  • Borders: 1,040 mi (1,673 km) / China, 880 mi (1,416 km); South Korea, 148 mi (238 km); Russia, 12 mi (19 km)
  • Coastline: 1,550 mi (2,495 km)
  • Territorial Seas: 12 NM
  • Highest Point: Paektu-san 9,003 ft (2,744 m)
  • Lowest Point: Sea level
  • Longest Distances: 447 mi (719 km) NNE-SSW; 231 mi (371 km) ESE-WNW
  • Longest River: Yalu, 500 mi (800 km)
  • Largest Lake: Kwangpo (salt lagoon), 5 sq mi (13 sq km)
  • Natural Hazards: Subject to drought in late spring, often followed by severe flooding; occasionally subject to typhoons in early fall
  • Population: 21,968,228 (July 2001 est.) / World Rank: 49
  • Capital City: P'yŏngyang, in the southwest
  • Largest City: P'yŏngyang, 2,500,000 (2000 est.)


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, comprises a little more than half of the Korean peninsula. To the west lies the Korea Bay and to the east the Sea of Japan. The northern frontier shares an 880 mi (1,416 km) border with the People's Republic of China (PRC), and a 12 mi (19 km) border with Russia in the extreme northeastern corner about 75 mi (120 km) southwest of the Russian city of Vladivostok. The terrain is mountainous, with Paektu-san (Mount Paektu), an extinct volcano, as the highest point. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) separates North Korea from the Republic of Korea, North Korea's neighbor to the south on the Korean Peninsula. A series of plains extends along the coasts on either side of the country. North Korea is situated on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate.


Mountains and uplands cover 80 percent of the territory; the proportion is as high as 90 percent in the northern region. The major mountain ranges form a crisscross pattern extending from northwest to southeast and northeast to southwest. The Mach'ŏl Range extends from the vicinity of Paektu-san on the Chinese border in a southeasterly direction toward the east coast. This range has peaks of over 6,500 ft (1,981 m) in altitude. At the summit of Paektu-san, the country's highest peak, is a crater lake, Cho'onji (Heavenly Lake).

Running northeasterly from the center of the Mach'ŏl Range toward the Tumen River valley is the Hamgyŏng Range, which also has a number of peaks of over 6,500 ft (1,981 m), including Kwanmo-bon (Mount Kwanmo), 8,334 ft (2,540 m). The southwest extension of the Hamgyŏng Range is known as the Pujŏllyŏng Range. Running from north to south and marking the drainage divide for the eastern and western halves of the country is the Nangnim Range, averaging 1,499 m (4,920 ft). To the west of the Nangnim Range are two less prominent ranges, the Myohyang and (in the center of the country) the Puktae, both of which are from 500 to 1,000 m (1,640 to 3,280 ft) in height. Running in a southwestern direction from the Nangnim Range along the Yalu River (which forms the border with China) is the Kangnam Range, the name of which means 'south of the river.'

Korea's other major mountain chain, the T'aebaek Range, rises south of Wŏnsan and extends down the eastern side of the peninsula; it is often called the "backbone of Korea." Only a short portion of its length is in North Korea, but this section includes the scenic Kŭmgang-san ("Diamond Mountains") comprising the heart of North Korea's largest national park. The granite mountains that rise near the shore of the sea of Japan feature nearly vertical sheer walls, deep canyons, and spectacular waterfalls.

The terrain east of the Hamgyŏng and Pujŏllyŏng consists of short, parallel ridges that extend from these mountains to the Sea of Japan, creating in effect a series of isolated valleys accessible only by rail lines branching off from the main coastal track. West of the T'aebaek Range, the terrain of central Korea is characterized by a series of lesser ranges and hills that gradually level off into plains along the west coast.

In some areas where the rock formations are limestone, caves abound. One of the best-known caves is located near Yongbyon on the southern side of the Ch'ŏngch'ŏn River. Known as T'ongnyonggul, it is about 3 mi (5 km) long, with many chambers, some of which reach widths of 500 ft (150 m) and with ceilings as high as 150 ft (50 m).


To the west of the Hamgyŏng and Pujŏllyŏng ranges lies Kaema Plateau, sometimes referred to as the "roof of Korea". The Kaema Plateau is a heavily forested basaltic tableland with relatively low elevation averaging 3,280 to 4,950 ft (1000 to 1,500 m).



The major rivers flow in a westerly direction to Korea Bay, the northern extent of the Yellow Sea. The major river is the Yalu, which flows from Paektu-san to Korea Bay, a distance of almost 500 mi (800 km). Because its course cuts through rocky gorges for much of its length, its alluvial plains are less extensive than its size would suggest. Oceangoing vessels can dock at Sinŭiju, and small craft can travel upstream as far as Hyesan. Although it is important for transportation and irrigation, the Yalu's main value lies in its hydroelectric power potential. Dams have been built on the Yalu and four of its tributaries, the Changjin, Hŏch'ŏn, Pujŏn, and Tongno rivers.

The Ch'ŏngch'ŏn River flows in the valley between the Kangnam and the Myohyang Mountain Ranges.


Oceans and Seas

Korea Bay off the west coast is shallow and has an unusually great tidal range—from 20 to 40 ft (6 to 12 m). To the east, the coastal waters of the Sea of Japan are very deep, averaging about 5,500 ft (1,676 m).

Major Islands

There are hundreds of small islands off the west coast of North and South Korea. None of the islands under North Korea's control are notable.

The Coast and Beaches

The west coast along the Korea Bay is highly indented and irregular, and it is studded with a multitude of small offshore islands. A considerable portion of the tidelands have potential value as agricultural land, reed fields, and salt evaporation facilities. Some reclamation has been undertaken in North and South P'yongan provinces. The main port on the west coast is Namp'o, which is located at the mouth of the Taedong River south of Sŏjosŏn Bay and is a center for both international and domestic trade. Further south the coast carves out two more bays, Taedong Bay, which cuts into the coast south of Changsan Cape, and Haeju Bay, which is tucked in away from the larger Kyŏnggi Bay.

In the east, where steep mountains lie close to the coastline along the Sea of Japan, the coastline is relatively smooth, with few islands and only two bays: the large Tongjosŏn Bay, and the smaller Yŏnghŭng Bay. The coast is washed by both warm and cold currents, contributing to a wide variety of marine life, and causing the coastal region to be frequently shrouded in dense fog.



The temperature varies from north to south during winter, with the average January temperature 1°F (-17°C) along the northern border and 18°F (-8°C) at P'yŏngyang, the capital. Summer temperatures have less variation from north to south, averaging 70°F (21°C) in the north, and 75°F (24°C) at P'yŏngyang.


Approximately 60 percent of the rainfall, 30–40 in (75–100 cm) annually, occurs in June through September. The northernmost regions receive less rainfall, averaging 20 in (50 cm).


The plains regions are important to the nation's economy, although they constitute only one-fifth of the total area. Most of the plains are alluvial, built up from silt deposited on their banks by rivers in their middle and

Population Centers – Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)
P'ynngyang (capital)2,741,260
SOURCE : "1993 Census: Demographic Yearbook." United Nations.
Provinces – Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)
NameArea (sq mi)Area (sq km)Capital
P'ynngan bukto4,60012,000Sintiju
P'ynngan namdo4,70012,300P'ynngsan
Special Cities   
P'ynngyang -si6951,800P'ynngyang
SOURCE : Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.

lower courses. Other plains, such as the P'yŏngyang peneplain, were formed by thousands of years of erosion from surrounding hills. A number of plains areas exist on the west coast, including the P'yŏngyang peneplain and the Unjon, Anju, Chaeryŏng, and Yonbaek plains. Of these, the Chaeryŏng and the P'yŏngyang are the most extensive, each covering an area of about 200 sq mi (618 sq km). They are followed in size by the Yonbaek Plain, which comprises about 120 sq mi (315 sq km); the rest are about 80 sq km (207 sq km) each. The plains support most of the country's farmlands, and their small size indicates the severe physical limitations placed on agriculture.

Forests and Jungles

North Korea has an extensive coniferous forest located in its mountainous interior, especially in the north. Species include pine, spruce, fir, and cedar. The lowlands have been deforested for purpose of agricultural cultivation.


Like its neighboring country to the south, most of the land in North Korea is mountainous, leaving the population in scattered settlements in the valleys and lowlands. Also like their neighbors in South Korea, North Koreans began migrating to urban areas following World War II. Most of the population resides in the region south of the Kangnam Mountains and west of the Nangnim Mountains, extending as far south as the P'yŏngyang municipal district. The least populated region is the mountainous northern region near the border with China. North Korea is not nearly as densely populated as South Korea, with an average population density of about 466 people per sq mi (180 people per sq km). Only seven of its cities have more than 300,000 people, and P'yŏngyang alone has more than a million.


Because of the mountainous terrain, much of the country's natural resources have not yet been fully explored or exploited. Natural resources include coal (along the Taedong River basin in the center of the country), lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, iron ore (centered in the southwestern peninsula region), copper, gold, pyrites, salt, and fluorspar. There is significant hydroelectric power potential, and wind-power generating equipment is installed in the P'yŏngyang region.


Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Oh, Kongdan, and Ralph C. Hassig. North Korea Through the Looking Glass. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

Oliver, Robert Tarbell. A History of the Korean People in Modern Times: 1800 to the Present. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.