Though an independent kingdom for most of its existence, Korea was
captured by Japan after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Following World
War II, Korea was split into two separate countries: the northern half,
run by a Soviet-dominated communist government, and the US influenced
southern state. In 1953, at the end of the Korean war, the border
between North and South Korea was formalized along a demilitarized zone.
North Korea’s post-war period was shaped by a closed society the domination of its leader, Kim Il-sung. Under his leadership, North Korea began a “self reliance” (Juche) phase as a check against excessive Soviet and Chinese influence. North Korea’s propaganda machinery demonized the US as the threat to its social system. The country’s political, economic and military policies were developed with the hope of eventual unification of the two Koreas under the communist control. Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong-il, became the head of the state, a position he maintains to this day. However, Kim is now believed to be sick: unidentified intelligence in South Korea has reported that the ruler has life-threatening pancreatic cancer, although North Korea denies these claims. Some western analysts believe Kim's deteriorating health may lead to a power grab by other political parties.
North Korea has an army of more than one million, making it the fourth largest in the world (behind China, the US and India). Economically, the nation has suffered as a result of decades of mismanagement. The country depends on foreign aid to feed its population. International monitoring groups have accused North Korea of widespread human rights abuses. One US-based group has estimated that North Korean prisons are packed with nearly 200,000 political prisoners.
In August 2009, former US President Bill Clinton visited North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists, who were imprisoned for entering the country illegally. Clinton spoke with Kim, who granted the journalists "special pardon" from their sentence of 12 years of hard labor.
North Korea’s relationships with the west have also been marred by its nuclear ambitions. The last few years have seen the North Korean pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), expel International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors, and test ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. The six party talks between North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US have led to important recent results. North Korea recently handed over a list of all its nuclear assets.
Sources: BBC, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.