Life for North Korea's 23 million population is harsh, with most people experiencing daily shortages of food.
Consumer goods such as fridges, washing machines and bicycles are hard to come by. Acute power shortages curtail daily life outside major cities to daylight hours.
Most roads are deserted as there are few cars, and the rail network is run down and dilapidated. Most North Koreans are forbidden to travel outside the country.
In the mid-1990s, years of economic mismanagement and drought culminated in a severe famine in which the UN estimates between 500,000 and 2 million people may have died.
While the food situation has improved in recent years, the UN World Food Programme warns that cereal production remains well below minimum requirements and that levels of malnutrition, particularly among children, are still high.
The government strictly controls all aspects of daily life. North Koreans are divided into three socio-political classes; "hostile", "wavering" and "committed", according to how loyal the regime perceives them to be.
All media is state controlled. TV and radios are fixed-tuned to the state channels since reception of foreign television is forbidden. Radios must be registered at police stations and are delivered sealed to prevent retuning.
These controls mean that most North Koreans may have little or no idea of world events, or how their country and their "Dear Leader", are perceived by the outside world.
Political expression is strictly forbidden and any dissent harshly punished. A detailed report based on eyewitness accounts compiled by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea suggests that about 200,000 political prisoners are incarcerated in gulags and labour camps. In many cases, up to three generations of the same family are being detained. Inmates face a regime of hard labour and beatings, and are kept alive on starvation rations.