At 38,691 square miles, South Korea is slightly larger than the state of Indiana. Over 70% of the land is mountainous, particularly in the eastern regions where rugged ranges and deep valleys form a spectacular natural landscape. Most of the larger forests and rivers are located in the west, the notable exception being the Nakdong River—Korea’s longest—which winds through Korea’s southeastern regions for more than 300 miles before it meets the sea at Busan. Countless bays dot the Korean coastline, which has some of the highest tides in the world, and about 3000 islands lie off Korea’s western and southern shores. The highest point on the Korean mainland is Jirisan, at 6,283 feet, though Hallasan, an extinct volcano on the island of Jeju, exceeds it by just over 100 feet.
Despite its geographic and cultural proximity to China and Japan, Korea developed a language completely independent of other linguistic families. Such languages are known as isolates, and with nearly 80 million speakers Korean is the most widely spoken isolate in the world. Although many Korean words are derived from Chinese, the two languages differ greatly in structure and pronunciation. Korean has 10 vowels and 14 consonants, and the official dialect of Korean is based on that spoken in and around Seoul. Hangul has been the standard written form of Korean since 1443.