For decades North Korea has been one of the world's most secretive societies. It is one of the few countries still under nominally communist rule.
North Korea's nuclear ambitions have exacerbated its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world.
The country emerged in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of World War II. Its history is dominated by its Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who shaped political affairs for almost half a century.
After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which became a guiding light for North Korea's development. Kim Il-sung died in 1994, but the post of president has been assigned "eternally" to him.
Decades of this rigid state-controlled system have led to stagnation and a leadership dependent on the cult of personality.
Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. The country relies on foreign food aid.
The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Amnesty International estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are held in detention facilities, in which it says that torture is rampant and execution commonplace.
Pyongyang has accused successive South Korean governments of being US "puppets", but South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's visit in 2000 signalled a thaw in relations.
Seoul's "sunshine policy" towards the North aimed to encourage change through dialogue and aid, but was dealt a blow in 2002 by Pyongyang's decision to reactivate a nuclear reactor and to expel international inspectors.
In October 2006 North Korea said it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, spreading alarm throughout the region.
Intensive diplomatic efforts were mounted to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions, finally yielding in 2007 under which Pyongyang agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor in return for aid and diplomatic concessions.
But negotiations stalled as North Korea accused its negotiating partners - the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia - of failing to meet agreed obligations.
Tensions with the rest of the world grew steadily again, especially after the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor's "sunshine policy".
In April 2009 North Korea walked out of international talks aimed at ending its nuclear activities, and carried out its second underground nuclear test the following month.
Kim Jong-il's successor in December 2011, his third son Kim Jong-un, continued the dynastic policy of mixed signals.
He agreed to suspend long-range missile tests in order to receive US food aid in February 2012, but soon after carried out a "rocket-launched satellite" launch, although this failed.
A more successful December 2012 satellite launch - not long after a new South Korean-US missile deal - suggested Pyongyang was developing rockets capable of hitting the US mainland.
In February 2013, it performed a long-promised third nuclear test in February 2013, prompting further UN Security Council sanctions.
Following further missile tests in 2014, North Korea announced that it would restart all facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, including a reactor mothballed in 2007, while also offering to restart talks if UN sanctions are dropped.
The current South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, continues to maintain a tough line towards the Pyongyang regime.
North Korea has traditionally enjoyed the support of its powerful neighbour China, but in recent years Chinese leaders seem increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by Pyongyang's intransigence over its nuclear programme.
North Korea maintains one of the world's largest standing armies and militarism pervades everyday life. But standards of training, discipline and equipment in the force are reported to be low.