Korea (known as 조선/Chosŏn in North Korea and 한국/Hanguk in South Korea) is a peninsula in East Asia occupied by two countries sharing a common culture, commonly called North Korea and South Korea. Korea is connected by land to Northeast China and the Russian Far East to the north, across the Yellow Sea from Beijing to its west, separated from Japan by the Sea of Japan (known as the 'East Sea' (동해, 東海) in Korea) to its east, and separated from Taiwan by the East China Sea to its south.
The peninsula is divided into two countries:
- North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK - 조선민주주의인민공화국, 朝鮮民主主義人民共和國)
- South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK - 대한민국, 大韓民國)
Both countries regard the Korean peninsula as one country that is awaiting reunification, divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
The shared border village of Panmunjeom in the middle of the DMZ can be considered as part of both North and South.
- 1 Pyongyang (Korean: 평양) – Capital city of North Korea
- 2 Kaesong (Korean: 개성) – Capital of the Goryeo Dynasty, now an industrial development zone in North Korea
- 3 Wonsan (Korean: 원산) – Port city on the east coast of North Korea
- 4 Seoul (Korean: 서울) – Once the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea's last royal dynasty, and today the capital of South Korea
- 5 Busan (Korean: 부산) – Largest port and second largest city of South Korea
- 6 Incheon (Korean: 인천) – Large port city near Seoul in South Korea
- 7 Daegu (Korean: 대구) – Third largest city in South Korea
- The truce village of 1 Panmunjom (Korean: 판문점) in the middle of the Korean DMZ, and shared territory of both Koreas
- 2 Jeju (Korean: 제주도) island is the favorite domestic tourist destination for South Koreans
- 3 Gyeongju (Korean: 경주) was the capital of the Shilla kingdom, and is full of history
- 4 Ulleungdo (Korean: 울릉도) and 5 Dokdo (Liancourt Rocks) (Korean: 독도) islands are a remote spot in the East Sea
- The 6 Baekdu Mountains (Korean: 백두산맥) on the border of North Korea and China have special significance for all Koreans
- Gwandong Palgyeong - "8 Landscapes" - along the east coast of Korea, both North and South
The Korean nation is called Hanguk (한국, 韓國) in South Korea and Chosŏn (조선, 朝鮮) in North Korea.
Historically Korea was divided between various kingdoms. At its height, the northernmost Goguryeo kingdom reached into much of what is now north-eastern China. There were three tribes in the southern part of the ancient Korean peninsula: Mahan, Chenhan, and Benhan, collectively known as the Three Hans. At that time, the northern part of the Korean peninsula was the Han four prefectures (Weiman Korea was destroyed by the Han dynasty, and Lelang prefectures, Xuantu prefectures, Zhenfan prefectures and Lintun prefectures were established, which were called Han four prefectures in history).
Apart from Chosŏn, the region of Korea developed into tribal states. To the north, Puyŏ rose in the Sungari River basin of Manchuria (now northeastern China). Qin, which had emerged south of the Han River in the 2nd century BCE, was split into three tribal states—Mahan, Chinhan, and Pyŏnhan. These states formed leagues, or tribal federations, centred on a leading state. The tribal leagues stretched across a wide area from the Sungari basin to the southern Korean peninsula. They evolved into three rival kingdoms: Koguryŏ (Goguryeo), Paekche (Baekje), and Silla. According to legends, Koguryŏ was founded by Chu-mong in 37 BCE, Paekche by Onjo in 18 BCE, and Silla by Pak Hyŏkkŏse in 57 BCE. The actual task of state building, however, was begun for Koguryŏ by King T’aejo (reigned 53–146 CE), for Paekche by King Koi (reigned 234–286), and for Silla by King Naemul (reigned 356–402).
With the support of China, Silla conquered and subjugated Paekche in 660 and Koguryŏ in 668. Not until 676 did Silla drive out the Chinese and gain complete control of the Korean peninsula. The surviving Koguryŏ people in northern Manchuria established Parhae (or Palhae; Bohai in Chinese), under the leadership of Tae Cho-yŏng (Dae Jo-yeong). The state soon came into direct confrontation with Silla. This period may be called an age of separate southern and northern states; it is customary, however, for historians to place the primary focus on Silla because little is known about Parhae, though it grew into a highly civilized state that the Chinese called the "Prosperous Country of the East". After Parhae’s demise its territory fell under the control of the northern nomadic peoples and has not since been a part of Korean history.
Wang Kŏn founded Koryŏ in 918 at Songdo (modern Kaesŏng, North Korea) and in 936 established a unified kingdom on the Korean peninsula. Wang Kŏn went to great lengths to absorb the people of the overthrown states, even accepting the survivors of Parhae, which had been destroyed by the Khitan (Liao). Proclaiming itself the successor of Koguryŏ, Koryŏ launched active campaigns to recover lost territory and clashed frequently with the Khitan in the north. Koryŏ eventually expanded its territory to the Yalu (Korean: Amnok) River.
When the dynasty was established, the territory under its control was named Chosŏn, with the approval of the emperor of China. The Chosŏn dynasty, with 26 monarchs, ruled from 1392 until the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Hanyang (now Seoul) was made the capital. The Confucian ethical system was officially adopted and replaced Buddhism, which had become corrupt. Many Confucian institutions of learning were set up. Chosŏn society was dominated by a hereditary aristocratic class, the yangban (literally, "two orders", meaning civil and military officials). Members of the yangban devoted themselves to the study of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy and, through civil service examinations, held public offices, their sole profession. Since they controlled all aspects of Chosŏn society and owned most of the land, the Chosŏn dynasty can be described as a yangban society.
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, called the Korean War began in 1950 that ended three years later. Since then it has remained divided into the communist North with a hereditary dictatorship, and a capitalist — and since the 1980s, democratic — South.
The two countries have been in a state of "ceasefire" for the past 70 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 homogeneous throughout the peninsula. There are no other ethnic groups historically associated with living here, although since the 1990s, there has been immigration into South Korea from China and South East Asia. Ethnic Korean communities can also be found in neighbouring China, whose border area with North Korea, Yanbian in particular, is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea.
Although culturally the countries share the same heritage, the different paths they have taken in the past 50 years mean 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 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 (as North Korea does with citizens of South Korea), which incidentally is almost identical to the way West Germany treated East German citizens that reached its territory.
Culture and arts
In the early 21st century, Korean arts and culture are attracting many enthusiasts around the world. Korea’s cultural and artistic achievements through the ages are now leading many of its young talents to the world’s most prestigious music and dance competitions, while its literary works are being translated into many different languages for global readers. Korean Dansaekhwa (monochrome paintings) have become a focus of the global art world.
The world’s craze for K-pop reached its zenith in August 2020, when the South Korean boy band BTS achieved its first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart with its first all-English-language single entitled "Dynamite". BTS has become the first all-South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the first one in Asia since 1963. This outcome reflects the popularity of K-pop throughout the world. Music videos of K-pop stars such as BLACKPINK, a South Korean girl group, have gone viral on YouTube.
The original artistic sensibility of Korean culture reflected in the diverse artifacts and tomb murals of the Three Kingdoms Period became richer and more profound as Korea progressed through the periods of Unified Silla (676–935), Goryeo (918– 1392), and Joseon (1392–1910). This artistic sensibility has been handed down through the generations to today’s Korean people.
South Korea preserves a wealth of priceless cultural heritage, the majority of which have been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List to be protected for future generations. As of 2020, 50 South Korean heritage items are listed either as World Heritage Sites or Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, or included in the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
The language of Korea is Korean. Since the division of the country into two very different states after the Korean War, differences in language between north and south have increased, with South Korea importing many English words into its vocabulary due to American influences. In addition, it's rare that people from the North and South have the opportunity to 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 the US variety of English as a second language is highly promoted and a key requirement for everyone in the education system. English proficiency in the general South Korean population tends to be poor, however, although people who deal with foreigners regularly will be able to speak English. Japanese and Mandarin are 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 (or upon request speakers of other "world languages").
Entering North Korea is relatively difficult, and as a rule can only be done via a state sanctioned tour group from Beijing. Typically flying from Beijing to the capital Pyongyang is the most common method, although potentially road or rail crossings across the border are possible.
It is worth noting that there are no practical options for directly travelling between the two Koreas. If you are in South Korea then you will typically first need to travel to Beijing and then take a direct flight to Pyongyang in North Korea. Also note that it is criminally subject to up to ten years in prison under the National Security Act (국가보안법) of South Korea for its citizens to travel to North Korea without the prior permission of the South Korean Ministry of Unification (통일부).
There used to be tours of North Korean tourist spots from South Korea — for example, the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region — but they have since been discontinued and are unlikely to resume any time soon.
There are no (realistic) travel options directly between North Korea and South Korea. The only place you can actually cross the border between the Koreas are inside the peace conference rooms in Panmunjeom that are bisected by the border. There you are not allowed to exit the room through the "wrong" door to the other side.
North Korea has extremely heavy restrictions on personal and group travel. Expect only to travel as part of a state-sanctioned tour with a highly prescribed itinerary.
South Korea has many options for travelling around the country, with an extensive and modern air, train (including high speed rail) and road network. Outside of the DMZ border area there are generally no restrictions on travel outside military areas.
- Visit the 'last frontier of the cold war' in the Korean DMZ.
- Sites from the kingdoms making up Pre-modern Korea can be seen both in the North and the South.
There are a number of palaces in various places in Korea that have been built over the course of several thousand years and several historical monarchies. Many have survived into the present. Some have been destroyed and have since never been rebuilt. And some, such as Gyeongbokgung, have been rebuilt after being destroyed.
Although the palaces of Korea were constructed following ancient Chinese principles, Korea has maintained an independent culture for 2,000 years, thus resulting in various differences. Korean people still preserved the original elements of their architecture that show no similarities to China or Japan.
- Visit a traditional Korean sauna/bath house (jjimjilbang)
- Go skiing in the former Winter Olympic resort of Pyeongchang, location of the Winter Olympics in 2018. North Korea also has a ski resort for foreigners called Masik near Wonsan
- See also: Korean cuisine
A spicy fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi (김치) is shared by both Koreas.
Slightly sweet rice cakes (떡, 糕 'duk') are popular, served in multiple colors as a desert, or in thick spicy sauce as a common street food.
Kimbap (김밥) is a harmonious combination of rice, egg yolk, carrots, ham, flavorful meat, and other ingredients piled high on nori seaweed.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a harmonious combination of carrots, raw vegetables, sautéed meat, and herbs served over rice and mixed with gochujang or soy sauce.
Bulgogi (불고기) a meat dish in which thinly sliced meat is marinated in a sweet mixture of garlic and soy sauce and stir-fried with enoki mushrooms, onions, scallions, peppers, etc.
A liquor 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 trouble since everything is so carefully planned out for you.
Refer to the South Korea page for safety issues in the South. South Korea is an advanced country with a very low crime rate.
The safety issue shared by both Koreas is the risk of war between them. Again, refer to the relevant country you are visiting in order 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 (in practice it is difficult for westerners) you could take the train to Russia's far east as well as take a train between Beijing and Pyongyang.