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Japan is a mountainous, volcanic island chain located in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands arc from Russia in the north toward the Korean Peninsula in the south. The country has four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, plus thousands of minor ones extending through the Ryukyu island chain framing the East China Sea. Japan's rugged terrain and lack of interregional connecting rivers isolated its population into separate, densely populated coastal plains. The Yamato plain, which dominates the "Inland Sea," the birthplace of Japanese civilization. The Inland Sea saw the rise of early Japanese maritime culture and facilitated communication and political control. As Japanese culture expanded over the island chain, the seat of power moved to the more productive and strategically located Kanto plain, Japan's core region and home to Tokyo, the world's largest metropolitan area. The country's primary geographic challenge is sustaining its large population on an island with little arable land and few natural resources. Japan's geography has prompted the country to alternate between periods of isolationism and expansion. When Japan unifies under strong centralized control, it is often drawn toward the continent for resources and land. This happened in the late 1500s and again in the early 1900s, leading to World War II. Given its location, the Korean Peninsula has been the corridor of invasion between Japan and China, and its status remains of strategic importance to Tokyo. The lack of natural resources in Japan continues to force the country to seek them abroad, leaving the country to balance between U.S. naval dominance and China's expanding maritime interests.
The city-state of Singapore sits at the southern tip of Southeast Asia's Malay Peninsula. Malaysia lies to its north and parts of Indonesia lie across a strait to its south. The island nation rests near the end of the Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and is one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The area emerged in the 13th century as a small trading outpost and gained prominence through its strategic location on the Maritime Silk Road. That location and success repeatedly put it at risk, from Siam and Javanese kingdoms in ancient times, and later from European powers, including the Portuguese and Dutch. It eventually fell into the hands of the British Empire and was later seized by the Japanese in World War II. Since its independence from Malaysia in 1965, it has focused on preserving its dominance of the regional shipping lane that runs near it and on avoiding the domination of outside powers. Though the country is dominated ethnically by Chinese, it has tried to create a distinct national identity. Maritime trade has led to an export-led industrialization that has far outpaced its neighbors, and its vulnerability has led it to develop a strong navy. Now it is striving to maintain a strategic balance among big powers, namely the United States and China, as relations in the region shift.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, lies on a peninsula extending outward from northeast Asia. The country borders China and Russia to the north, the Republic of Korea to the south, and Japan across the sea to the east. North Korea's primary geographic challenge is securing its northern and southern borders from the threat of its much larger regional neighbors. The Kaema Plateau and Hamgyong Mountains comprise much of the northern border region, providing a strong but not unbreachable geographic barrier. The Taebaeck Mountains run along the east coast, limiting the potential for invasion from the sea. Since the time of earlier North Korean kingdoms including Koguryo, The Dandong-Sinuiju gap across the Yalu River in the northwest and the wide Imjin-Han river valley in the south leave the country vulnerable, particularly with the lack of geographic barriers along the north-south axis. North Korea's mountains do provide ample hydropower, and the country also has numerous natural mineral resources and coal, but its terrain and climate limit agricultural activity. Given its larger neighbors, North Korea has two core imperatives. It must secure its southern and northern borders via political accommodation, defensive lines or outward expansion, and it must engender a strong sense of national unity and exploit differences among its neighbors to balance external political pressure. From the launching of the Korean War to the heavily fortified DMZ, from the exploitation of relations between China and Russia to the development of a nuclear deterrent, North Korea's actions in many ways are shaped by similar constraints and pressures as felt by its predecessor kingdoms due to its location and geography.