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 aid to feed millions of its people.
The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Reports of torture, public executions, slave labour, and forced abortions and infanticides in prison camps have emerged. A US-based rights group has estimated that there are up to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.
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.
This tentative reaching-out to the world 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. Since then, intensive diplomatic efforts have aimed to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions. After years of on-and-off talks, a deal was thrashed out in February 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 between North Korea and the rest of the world increased steadily again from late 2008 onwards, especially after the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North.
In April 2009 North Korea walked out of international talks aimed at ending its nuclear activities. The following month the country carried out its second ever underground nuclear test and announced that it no longer considered itself bound by the terms of the 1953 truce that ended the war between the two Koreas.
Tensions reached a new high in spring 2010, when the South accused North Korea of being responsible for sinking one of its warships, the Cheonan, and cut off all cross-border trade. Pyongyang denied the claims, and in turn severed all ties with Seoul.
After the US imposed tough sanctions in August, the North began to make overtures again. Its then leader, Kim Jong-il, signalled a readiness to resume six-party nuclear talks during a visit to China, and indicated a willingness to accept Southern aid to cope with major flood damage.
Following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, analysts predicted that there would be little turbulence in North Korea, with regime members being minded to preserve the status quo.
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 said to be low.
* Full name: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea
* Population: 23.9 million (UN, 2010)
* Capital: Pyongyang
* Area: 122,762 sq km (47,399 sq miles)
* Major language: Korean
* Major religions: Mainly atheist or non-religious, traditional beliefs
* Life expectancy: 66 years (men), 72 years (women) (UN)
* Monetary unit: 1 won = 100 chon
* Main exports: Minerals and metals, cement, agricultural products
* GNI per capita: n/a
* Internet domain: .kp
Eternal president: Kim Il-sung (deceased)
Chairman, National Defence Commission: Kim Jong-il (deceased)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack in December 2011, having spent 17 years in power. He was 69.
State media reported scenes of mass grief after his death. His body was put on display in a glass coffin.
Beyond the elaborate personality cult through which he ruled, little was known about Mr Kim's character.
He was rarely photographed and was almost never heard in radio and TV broadcasts.
After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, Kim Jong-il did not immediately assume his father's titles; there were reports that Kim Il-sung's first choice as successor was the younger brother, Kim Yong-ju. Kim Jong-il eventually became head of the Korean Workers' Party in 1997.
In the later years of his rule, he met several world leaders, including the South Korean president and the Japanese prime minister. He attended summits in Moscow and Beijing.
Mr Kim was sometimes caricatured as a reclusive playboy with bouffant hair, platform shoes and a taste for cognac.
Rumours of poor health gave rise to intense speculation over which member of Mr Kim's family was most likely to succeed him. By 2010, his youngest son Kim Jong-un was widely regarded as the heir apparent.
Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia in 1941 during his father's period of exile in the former Soviet Union.
But official North Korean accounts say he was born in a log cabin at his father's guerrilla base on the country's highest mountain - an event marked by a double rainbow and a new star in the sky.
Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il, is expected to be appointed the next leader of North Korea.
He was given senior roles in the ruling party earlier in 2010, and was made a four-star general, despite lacking military experience.
Soon after the death of his father, North Korean state media lauded Kim Jong-un as "a great person born of heaven" and anointed him the "Great Successor" of the philosophy of juche (self reliance).
At the end of December he was formally appointed chairman of the National Defence Commission, the post his late father had held.
Observers say he will be eased into power, under the guidance of his aunt and her husband.
Born in 1983 or early 1984, Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland. He shares some of his late father's health problems, and is reported to have diabetes and heart disease.
From : BBC News