DPRK Briefing Book: DPRK Geography

DPRK Briefing Book: DPRK Geography

DPRK Briefing Book: DPRK Geography

The DPRK is located on the northern half of the Korean peninsula, at the juncture of the northeast Asian continent and the Japanese archipelago. Bordered by the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay (a northern arm of the Yellow Sea) to the west and the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as it is known to Koreans) to the east, North Korea occupies about 55 percent of total land area of the Korean Peninsula, approximately 120,410 square kilometers (47,000 square miles), slightly smaller in area than England. To the north, it is bounded by People’s Republic of China, with which it shares an 800 km border along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, and by Russia, with which it shares an 18 km border along the Tumen River. Japanese lies east of the peninsula across the Sea of Japan.

To the south, North Korea shares a 238 km military demarcation line (MDL) with South Korea, bounded on both sides by a 2,000-meter demilitarized zone (DMZ). However, both governments hold that this division is only temporary, and not a permanent border. Following World War II, the 966-km (600 mile) Korean Peninsula was split into Soviet and American military zones of administration. In 1948 two separate regimes were formally established, with the area north of the 38th Parallel coming under DPRK control and the 98,477 square kilometer (38,022 square mile) area to the south coming under ROK control.

The capital and largest city in North Korea is Pyongyang, with a population of more than 2.7 million, according to 1993 estimates. Other major cities include Hamhung, Chongjin, Wonsan, Nampo, and Kaesong.


The Korean peninsula is largely mountainous. Approximately 80 percent of the land area is moderately high mountain ranges and uplands, separated by deep, narrow valleys and small, cultivated plains. Elevation ranges from a sea level along the coasts to 2,744 meters at Mt. Paektu, the highest point on the Korean peninsula. Principal mountain ranges include the Hamhung Range, located in the extreme northeastern part of the peninsula, whose many high peaks include Mt. Kwanmo at approximately 1,756 meters; the Nangnim Range, which is located in the north-central part of North Korea; and the Kangnam Range, which runs along the North Korea-China border.

The mountain ranges in the northern and eastern parts of North Korea form the watershed for most of its rivers, which run in a westerly direction and empty into the Yellow Sea. Most of the rivers are relatively short and many are unnavigable, filled with rapids and waterfalls. The longest is the Yalu River, which is navigable for 678 of its 790 kilometers. The Tumen River, one of the few major rivers to flow into the Sea of Japan, is the second longest at 521 kilometers but is navigable for only 85 kilometers because of the mountainous topography. The third longest river, the Taedong River, flows through Pyongyang and is navigable for 245 of its 397 kilometers.

Lakes tend to be small because of the lack of glacial activity and the stability of the earth’s crust in the region. Unlike neighboring Japan or northern China, North Korea experiences few severe earthquakes. The country is well endowed with spas and hot springs, which number 124 according to one North Korean source. Off the heavily indented coast lie some 3,420 islands, most of them rocky and uninhabited (of the inhabited islands, about half have a population of less than 100).


Located between 38th and 43rd Parallels, North Korea has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. Long, dry winters bring bitterly cold and clear weather interspersed with snowstorms as a result of northern and northwestern winds that blow from Siberia. The daily average high and low temperatures for Pyongyang in January are -3° C and -13° C. Average snowfall is thirty-seven days during the winter. The weather is likely to be particularly harsh in the northern, mountainous regions.

Spring is a transitional season marked by mild temperatures, variable winds, and pleasant weather. However, the advent of the summer rainy season often brings frequent and severe floods. On average, approximately 60 percent of all precipitation occurs from June to September, because of the southern and southeastern monsoon winds that bring moist air from the Pacific Ocean. The daily average high and low temperatures for Pyongyang in August are 29° C and 20° C. Autumn is drier and cooler, with crisp, bright days, and cool nights. Typhoons affect the peninsula once a year on average, usually during the late summer or early fall.

Natural Resources

Some 80-90% of the peninsula’s mineral wealth is concentrated in North Korea. The North is rich in iron and coal and has some 200 different kinds of minerals of economic value, including gold, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, copper, silver, salt, and fluorspar. North Korea’s anthracite coal reserves exceed 10 billion tons; iron ore reserves, centered in Musan, are estimated to be three billion tons; lead and zinc, concentrated in the Komdok area of the northeast, roughly 12 million tons each; tungsten, a strategic material needed in jet engines and missiles, 232,00 tons; and magnesite, found in Tanchon, Ryongyang, and Taehung, six billion tons. The North also has substantial unexploited reserves of gold, although definitive estimates cannot be without new exploration. In addition, preliminary geological studies suggest the possibility of significant oil and gas reserves, especially along the west coast on the North Korean side of the Yellow Sea. However, recent information suggests that the DPRK has more graphite than usable oil reserves. Indeed, North Korea has abo

ut 80 percent of the world’s graphite resources-a strategic mineral used in the nuclear fuel cycle.

Because of the mountainous and rocky terrain, less than 20% of Korean land is arable. Rice is the chief crop, with wet paddy fields constituting about half of the farmland. Paddies are found along the coasts, in reclaimed tidal areas, and in river valleys. Barley, wheat, corn, soybeans, and grain sorghums are also extensively cultivated; other crops include cotton, tobacco, fruits, potatoes, beans, and sweet potatoes. Livestock pays a minor role in North Korean agriculture, where the steep and often barren hills are unsuitable for large-scale grazing, but there is some cultivation of cattle, pigs, and eggs. The fishing waters off Korea are among the best in the world; the long coastline and numerous islands, inlets, and reefs provide excellent fishing grounds, and the presence of both a warm and a cold current attracts a great variety of species.

Environmental Issues

Although a lack of information makes it difficult to assess the extent to which industrialization and urbanization have damaged North Korea’s natural environment, there is evidence that the region suffers from water pollution, inadequate supplies of potable water, water-borne disease, deforestation, soil erosion, and degradation. Reforestation and conservation programs have helped reverse some the effects of excessive cutting, much of which took place during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), but North Korea continues to struggle with deforestation and erosion due to the over harvesting of forests and inadequate soil conservation practices.

The DPRK energy sector has historically been a major source of environmental problems both within and — in the case of regional and global pollutants — outside the country. Among these problems are industrial pollution of rivers; urban air pollution (including sulfur and nitrogen oxides, the precursors of acid precipitation) from industrial facilities and virtually uncontrolled combustion of coal in residential, industrial, and power plant boilers; indoor air pollution from domestic combustion of coal and biomass fuels; pollution of surface – and ground-water from agricultural practices (fertilizer and pesticide application, irrigation); high per capita greenhouse gas emissions (from high per-capital coal use); and pollution of waters by drainage from mines.

The litany of environmental problems described above is hardly unique to the DPRK. It is the confluence of these problems, high population densities, limited resources of arable land, and political and economic isolation that leave the DPRK in arguably a much worse position than most countries to deal with environmental problems. North Korea suffers from a lack of sufficient trained personnel and analytical equipment for use in enforcing existing environmental laws, meaning that environmentally sound practices are sporadic at best. In the short run, the absence of an effective regulatory infrastructure means that the extent to which the DPRK takes environmental considerations of any kind into account in planning and operating its energy system is likely to be externally, rather than internally, motivated, even though the North Korean leadership have declared that environmental protection is to be of paramount importance.