The North Koreans, ranked 85th in the world, kept Brazil at bay for 55 minutes until Maicon's cross-cum-shot swerved in at the near post and the three points were assured by a rare moment of magic as Robinho laid a second goal on a plate for former Manchester City teammate Elano, although Ji Yun-nam gave it a late scare by halving the deficit.
The win took Brazil top of Group G, above Portugal and Cote d'Ivoire, but it did not look particularly convincing in living up toits tag of joint World Cup favourites alongside Spain.
North Korea was first to have a shot on target after 10 minutes when Japan-born striker Jong Tae-se bustled past two markers and drilled in a left-footed shot which Julio Cesar was able to gather.
Brazil was dominating possession but struggling to pick the final pass and the North Koreans were not purely sitting back as Cha Jong-hyok got forward to blast a left-footed shot wide after 15 minutes.
The South American team threatened when Luis Fabiano slotted the ball through to Robinho in the box. The forward, on loan at Santos from Manchester City, was able to make room for a shot but North Korea goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk got well behind it.
The lack of genuine width seemed to be causing Brazil problems as North Korea's five-man defence ganged up on Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Robinho and Elano in a congested attacking third and Kim Jong-hun's team were content to burst forward in small numbers on the break.
Goalkeeper Ri parried away a Maicon drive at his near post in the 28th minute which was Brazil's best effort up to that point.
The North Koreans were making a fight of it and, following a corner, Pak Chol-jin cut the ball back from the right to Ri Kwang-chon but the defender scuffed a presentable shooting chance wide from 25 yards.
Not much was going Brazil's way as Michel Bastos' shot deflected off Pak Chol-jin and looped over the crossbar with Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai wrongly awarding a goal-kick, and Ri Kwang-chon made a vital header clear under pressure from Luis Fabiano as the half ended goalless, against all the odds.
The second half started in much the same vein as the first had ended as North Korea, to borrow Jose Mourinho's phrase, "parked the bus" on the edge of the box and Brazil struggled to find a way through.
Michel Bastos blasted a free-kick wide from just outside the box in the 51st minute after Pak Chol-jin was penalised for a foul on Kaka. The Real Madrid star then chested the ball down for Robinho to shoot from 26 yards but his right-footed effort was again wayward.
The goal finally came on 55 minutes when Elano played the ball into the box for the overlapping Maicon and his shot beat Ri at the near post, with the goalkeeper seemingly expecting the Inter Milan full-back to cut the ball back rather than shoot.
Ri fisted clear another long-range drive from Michel Bastos and, as North Korea committed more men forward, they left gaps. On one counter-attack Robinho found Luis Fabiano, who beat defender Ri Jun-il in the box but blasted a left-footed shot over.
Brazil added a second in the 72nd minute and it was a thing of beauty as Robinho slipped a perfect through-ball to Elano advancing into the box on the right and the Galatasaray man made no mistake with a cool side-footed finish. The goalscorer was immediately substituted, with Dani Alves coming on.
Villarreal forward Nilmar, on for Kaka, drove in a right-footed shot which Ri gathered at the second attempt with 12 minutes left and he also had to field a Felipe Melo effort shortly afterwards.
Juan had to make a last-ditch tackle to deny Jong a late chance and Ji then burst through to score, sparking a wild celebration, although the points remained with Brazil.