There is no other country on earth as inaccessible as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea. This is no accident-the D.P.R.K. has largely shunned the outside world and pursued its own path for the last half a century.Consequently, few people visit, trade is almost nonexistent, and even images of the country's capital, Pyongyang, are rare. This has led to an excess of qualifying terms to describe the North; the country is invariably "sclerotic," "schizophrenic," "Orwellian," "Kafkaesque," "anachronistic," "a pariah," or "a suicide state." In Pyongyang they prefer other terms; "paradise" was often used in the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s, before economic stagnation, starvation, and isolation set in for a prolonged period. Nowadays, the North seems to prefer to define itself by a sort of theatrical victimhood-a country hounded by the imperialist forces of America and other assorted "bandits."I have lived and worked in China for more than 15 years, and arriving in Pyongyang is still a shock-the cacophony of noise, traffic, and bustle that characterizes a typical Chinese city is almost totally absent in Pyongyang. It is a city of 2.5 million people that goes to bed early and, after 9 p.m., is as silent and dark as a remote country village. The level of isolation is also unparalleled-the outside world is by and large an unknown thing. It's a cheap throwaway line but I can't think of another country where the names Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley elicit little more than blank stares. When you land in Pyongyang you have truly reached the end of the line.The fascination with North Korea is the desire to know the answer to a simple but complex question-why does it still exist in spite of the sweep of history? Predictions of the D.P.R.K.'s demise have been legion and, so far, always wrong. Many thought the country couldn't survive the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc-but it did. Others predicted that the regime would collapse after its founding father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994-it didn't, and power transferred to his son Kim Jong Il, creating the world's first Communist monarchy. Later that decade, a famine resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths, and again people predicted the regime would fall-it didn't, and if anything it became more entrenched. And all this time the country has survived with an economy that barely functions, severe power and fuel shortages, virtually no international trade, and virtually no outside contact. The D.P.R.K. is a historical relic, an anomaly in a world of globalization-it's the last hermit kingdom, and its borders remain tightly sealed.Never forget that the D.P.R.K. is a country at war. In 1950, North Korea invaded the South and civil war ensued. United Nations forces (the bulk of them American) became involved on the side of Seoul, fighting Pyongyang. It became a prototypical conflict of the Cold War-the South fighting with help from more than 20 U.N. countries, including the United States, against the North (assisted by advisers from the U.S.S.R. and China). Fighting raged up and down the peninsula and threatened to explode into a full-blown world war when Chairman Mao launched his Chinese People's Volunteers across the border between China and Korea, and Chinese soldiers fought American GIs in Korea. In 1953 an armistice was declared, and a border between North and South was set, but no peace treaty was ever signed. Technically, the Korean War never ended-the last 54 years have been one tense, drawn out cease-fire.