Korea is a peninsula in East Asia, connected by land to Northeast China and the Russian Far East to the north, across the Yellow Sea from Beijing to its west, and separated from Japan by the Sea of Japan (Known as the 'East Sea' in Korea) to its east.
The peninsula is divided into two separate countries:
- North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK )
- South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK )
Note that both countries regard the Korean peninsula as one country that is awaiting reunification.
Also note that the shared border village of Panmunjeom on the border can be considered as part of both north and south.
- The peace village of Panmunjeom in the middle of the DMZ, and shared territory of both Koreas.
- Jeju island is South Korea's favorite domestic tourist destination.
The Korean nation was occupied and annexed by Japan from 1910 until the end of the second world war in 1945. Shortly thereafter it was divided by the allied forces and a devastating civil war began in 1950 that ended three years later. Since then it has remained divided into the Communist North and (since the 1980's) a Democratic South.
The two countries have been in a state of 'cease fire' for the past 60 years, however the relationship has always been strained and risk of another devastating war is always a possibility.
The people of Korea are known as Koreans, and are ethnically homogenous throughout the peninsula. There are no other ethnic groups historically associated with living here, although more recent times have seen immigration into South Korea.
Although culturally both countries share the same heritage, the different paths both have taken in the past 50 years means that you have to refer to the Wikivoyage pages for South Korea and North Korea to gain a relevant understanding.
There are not many practical examples of the Korean nation as a concept. The two Koreas occasionally team up together at the Olympics under a unified flag and there is a joint industrial zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong. South Korea regards all citizens of North Korea as Korean citizens with a right to live in South Korea.
The language of Korea is Korean. Since the division of the country into two after the Korean war the dialect between the two has become very different with South Korea importing many English words into the its vocabulary. In addition, it is rare that citizens of both countries have the opportunity interact. Nevertheless, the language is still very much mutually intelligible between Korean speakers.
South Korea has been a strong ally of the United States since the Korean war, and English as a second language is highly promoted there and a key requirement for everyone in the education system. Japanese is also spoken by many in the tourism industry.
North Korea will unfortunately present you with few chances to speak to North Koreans. Typically your guides will be English speakers, although most of the general population will have learned either Russian or Mandarin Chinese.
Entering North Korea is relatively difficult, and as a rule can only be done via a state sanctioned tour group from Beijing. Entering South Korea is relatively easy for most nationalities and can be done by air or sea.
It is worth noting that there are no options for directly traveling between the two Koreas. If you are in South Korea then you will first need to travel to Beijing and then take a direct flight to Pyongyang in North Korea. Also note that it is illegal under the laws of South Korea for its citizens to travel to North Korea without the prior permission of the South Korean government.
North Korea has extremely heavy restrictions on personal travel. Expect only to travel as part of a state sanctioned tour.
South Korea has many options for traveling around the country, with an extensive air, train and road network.
A fermented spicey cabbage dish called kimchi is shared by both Koreas. Rice cakes are also popular.
An alcoholic rice wine called Soju is the shared drink of both Koreas.
Refer to the North Korea page for details on the unique safety issues of the North. Suffice to say that you have zero risk from crime with a real risk of offending the authorities and suffering consequences if you do so. Otherwise it will be hard for you to get into danger since everything is so carefully planned for you.
Refer to the South Korea page for safety issues in the South. South Korea is advanced country with a very low crime rate.
The shared safety issue of both Koreas is the risk of war between the two. Again, refer to the relevant country you are visiting to understand this better.
Most tourist journeys for westerners to North Korea are guided tours starting by air from Beijing and returning there as well. You are unlikely to get any other options, although in theory you could take the train to Russia.