Korea, North

Official name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Area: 120,540 square kilometers (46,540 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Paektu-san (Mount Paektu) (2,744 meters/9,003 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 9 P.M. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 719 kilometers (447 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest; 371 kilometers (231 miles) from east-southeast to west-northwest

Land boundaries: 1,673 kilometers (1,040 miles) total boundary length; China 1,416 kilometers (880 miles); South Korea 238 kilometers (148 miles); Russia 19 kilometers (12 miles)

Coastline: 2,495 kilometers (1,550 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


North Korea is located in eastern Asia on the northern half of the Korean h2ninsula, between the countries of China and South Korea. The country also shares a very short border with Russia. The Sea of Japan lies to the east and the Korea Bay to the west. With an area of about 120,540 square kilometers (46,540 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. North Korea is divided into nine provinces.


North Korea has no outside dependencies or territories.


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

Approximately 60 percent of the annual rainfall, from 75 to 100 centimeters (30 to 40 inches), occurs from June through September. The northernmost regions receive less rainfall, averaging 50 centimeters (20 inches).


The terrain of North Korea is mountainous; Paektu-san, an extinct volcano, is the highest point. A series of plains extends along the coasts on either side of the country. North Korea is situated on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Sea of Japan, an enclosed arm of the western Pacific Ocean, lies to the east of North Korea. Its coastal waters are very deep, averaging about 1,676 meters (5,500 feet). Korea Bay, off the western coast, is an inlet of the Yellow Sea, which is also an arm of the Pacific Ocean. The Bay is shallow, and it has an unusually great tidal range of 6 to 12 meters (20 to 40 feet).

Sea Inlets and Straits

The main port on the west coast is Namp'o, which is located at the mouth of the Taedong River south of Sojoson Bay and is a center for both international and domestic trade. Further south are 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 Kyonggi Bay. The east coast has two major inlets: the large Tongjoson Bay, and the smaller Yonghung Bay.

Islands and Archipelagos

Although there are hundreds of small islands off the western coast of North Korea, none of the islands under North Korea's control are notable. The countries of North and South Korea currently are disputing ownership of many of the islands.

Coastal Features

The western coast along the Korea Bay is highly indented and irregular, and it is studded with a multitude of small offshore islands. Many of the tidelands have potential value as agricultural land, reed fields, and salt evaporation facilities.

In the east, where steep mountains lie close to the Sea of Japan, the coastline is relatively smooth, with few offshore islands. 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 largest natural inland body of water in North Korea is Kwangpo, which is actually a salt lagoon that covers an area of about 13 square kilometers (5 square miles).

The Changjin Reservoir, an artificial lake, is one of the nation's biggest lakes and a primary water source. It is located on the Changjin River.


The major rivers of North Korea flow in a westerly direction into Korea Bay, the northern extent of the Yellow Sea. The longest river is the Yalu, which flows from Paektu-san to Korea Bay, a distance of almost 800 kilometers (500 miles). 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 Sinuiju and small watercraft 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.

The Ch'ongch'on River flows in the valley between the Kangnam and the Myohyang mountain ranges.


There are no desert regions in North Korea.


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 the banks of flooding rivers. Other plains, such as the P'yongyang peneplain, were formed by thousands of years of erosion from surrounding hills. A number of plains areas exist on the western coast, including the P'yongyang peneplain and the Unjon, Anju, Chaeryong, and Yonbaek Plains. Of these, the Chaeryong and the P'yongyang are the most extensive, each covering an area of about 618 square kilometers (200 square miles). The Yonbaek Plain comprises about 315 square kilometers (120 square miles). The rest of the plains regions each cover about 207 square kilometers (80 square miles). The plains support most of the country's farmlands, and their small sizes illustrate the severe physical limitations placed on agriculture.


Mountains and uplands cover 80 percent of the territory. The major mountain ranges form a crisscross pattern extending from northwest to southeast and northeast to southwest. The Mach'ol Range extends from the vicinity of Paektu-san on the Chinese border in a southeasterly direction toward the eastern coast. This range has peaks of over 1,981 meters (6,500 feet) in altitude. At the summit of Paektu-san, the country's highest peak at 2,744 meters (9,003 feet), is a crater lake: Cho'onji (Heavenly Lake).


The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the stretch of land that marks the border between North and South Korea. The demarcation line, or border, was created at the 38th parallel (38° latitude) by a 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War. Since then, the DMZ, which covers an area of about 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), has been almost entirely free from human intrusion. As a result, the ecosystem there has flourished and has become home for many rare and endangered species, including Asiatic black bears, Amur leopards, the red-crowned crane, and several others. Environmentalists and activists from around the world are working to make the area a protected nature reserve.

Running northeasterly from the center of the Mach'ol Range toward the Tumen River valley is the Hamgyong Range, which also has a number of peaks over 1,981 meters (6,500 feet), including Kwanmo-bon (Mount Kwanmo) at 2,540 meters (8,334 feet). The southwest extension of the Hamgyong Range is known as the Pujollyong 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 meters (4,920 feet). 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 reach heights of 500 to 1,000 meters (1,640 to 3,280 feet). 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 Wonsan 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 Kumgangsan ("Diamond Mountains") comprising the heart of North Korea's largest national park. Near the shore of the Sea of Japan, granite mountains feature nearly vertical sheer walls, deep canyons, and spectacular waterfalls.

The terrain east of the Hamgyong and Pujollyong consists of short, parallel ridges that extend from these mountains to the Sea of Japan, creating 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 North Korea is characterized by a series of lesser ranges and hills that gradually level off into plains along the western coast.

North Korea has an extensive coniferous forest located in its mountainous interior, especially in the north. Tree species include pine, spruce, fir, and cedar.


In some areas where mountain rock formations are made of limestone, there are many caves. One of the best-known caves is located near Yongbyon on the southern side of the Ch'ongch'on River. Known as T'ongnyonggul, it is about 5 kilometers (3 miles) long, with many chambers, some of which reach widths of 150 meters (500 feet) and heights up to 50 meters (150 feet).


To the west of the Hamgyong and Pujollyong 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 1,000 to 1,500 meters (3,280 to 4,950 feet).


Wind-power generating plants are located in the P'yongyang region. Dams have been built on the Yalu and four of its tributaries, the Changjin, Hoch'on, Pujon, and Tongno Rivers. These dams provide both water and hydroelectric power.



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

Hoore, James. Korea: An Introduction . New York: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Landau, Elaine. Korea . New York: Children's Press, 1999.

Nash, Amy K. North Korea . New York: Chelsea House, 1999.

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

Web Sites

Neufeld, Ann Nichole. "Korean Demilitarized Zone as a Bioreserve." ICE Case Studies. American University: Inventory of Conflict and Environment Program. http://www.american.edu/TED/ice/dmz.htm (accessed April 24, 2003).

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