For much of its history Korea existed as an ancient, independent kingdom, but in the latter years of the 19th Century it came under the sphere of influence of Japan.
In 1910, Korea was forcibly annexed by Tokyo beginning a controversial period of Japanese rule. Although Japan built modern road and communications networks, life for ordinary Koreans was harsh.
The export of Korean crops to Japan caused food shortages, sweatshops and slave labour became rife, and any opposition to Japanese rule was harshly suppressed.
By 1937 the Korean language, and teaching of Korean history and culture in schools, had been banned in an attempt to eradicate national identity.
When Japan entered World War II in 1941, tens of thousands of Korean men were conscripted into the Japanese army; many exiles joined the Allied war effort under the banner of the Korean Liberation Army.
Days after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Soviet forces entered northern Korea. With the south administered by the United States, the country was effectively split into two occupation zones.
As post-war optimism was replaced by the mutual mistrust of the Cold War, the two Koreas developed into vastly different countries. The US-dominated south was strongly geared to free-market capitalism while USSR-affiliated North followed traditional communist lines.
By 1948, political and social polarisation had made reunification effectively impossible. Former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il-sung rose to prominence in the North Korean Communist party and became Prime Minister in 1948.
With massive Soviet assistance, Kim began a process of militarisation which culminated in 1950 in an attack on the south with the aim of "liberating" it and reunifying the country.
American and British forces operating under the banner of the United Nations intervened, triggering a conflict - effectively a proxy war between the superpowers - which lasted for three years before ending in stalemate.
After the war Kim Il-sung switched away from orthodox Marxist-communism to his own self-scripted doctrine of "Juche", which essentially calls for self-sufficiency in all aspects of life.
His policies saw North Korea become even more isolated from and hostile to Western powers. International trade declined and Kim began to perpetuate a personality cult, styling himself as the "Great Leader".
The regime began to strictly control every aspect of daily life. Although vast military expenditure continued to drain the economy, North Korea enjoyed a period of relative prosperity through the 1960s and 70s.
In the 1980s however, the country began to falter. While other communist countries attempted economic reform, North Korea stuck rigidly to the ideological purity of its state-run system.
The collapse of communism in Europe and Russia saw North Korea lose many of the few trading partners it had.
By the mid 1990s, a series of droughts and floods coupled with continued economic mismanagement triggered severe food shortages. Thousands of refugees flooded across the border into China.
Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il, head of the armed forces, assumed control. Amid rumours of a power struggle however, he was not confirmed as General Secretary of the Communist Party until October 1997.
A short period of rapprochement with South Korea and the United States followed, culminating in an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000.
Despite this, food shortages and economic hardships have continued, despite some hopes that the country would emulate China's modern-day free market reforms.
In recent years, North Korea's series of ballistic missile tests and efforts to build nuclear weapons has fuelled regional tension.