North Korea country profile - Overview
- 24 February 2015
- From the section Asia
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. 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.
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 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 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, 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.
Kim Jong-il's successor in December 2011, his third son Kim Jong-un, continued the dynastic policy of sending out mixed signals. He agreed to suspend long-range missile tests in order to receive US food aid in February 2012, only to challenge the US and the other frontline states almost immediately by announcing a forthcoming "rocket-launched satellite" for April, to mark Kim Il-Sung's birthday.
This launch failed, but in October 2012 Pyongyang responded to the unveiling of a new missile deal between Seoul and Washington by saying that it had missiles capable of hitting the US mainland. A December satellite launch suggested that North Korea is developing such rocket technology, and brought immediate condemnation from the UN, US, Japan and China.
The following month, immediately after the UN Security Council condemned the launch, North Korea announced that it planned to conduct a third "high-level nuclear test" and rehearse more long-range rocket launches aimed at the US "arch-enemy".
It carried out its threat to perform a third nuclear test in February 2013, and swiftly received another set of UN Security Council sanctions on cash transfers and travel for its diplomats. It test-fired two medium-range Nodong missiles in March 2014, again in violation of UN resolutions.
Undaunted, North Korea threatened South Korea and the USA with war and 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 appear to have become increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by Pyongyang's intransigence over its nuclear programme and its resolute isolationism in all other areas.
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.