Q: How many times have you been inside North Korea?
A: I first traveled maybe six or seven times to a tourist area beginning in 2001. It was relatively easy to go to Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort on the east coast. It was designed for South Korean tourists, but American tourists went, too. Initially, I could not get a visa to go to Pyongyang, the capital, until 2005. It was tough times to be an American and a journalist. George W. Bush had just delivered his Axis of Evil speech, and Americans were persona non grata. That was part of my obsession with North Korea: If a journalist is told you cannot go someplace, you soon get fixated, kind of like a cat with a string. That bred an obsession in me about the details of everyday life in North Korea.
Q: The decision to do the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea began when?
A: From the beginning, I realized I knew a lot about North Korean history. There was a lot written about their weapons program and the Communist Party in North Korea, which is called the Workers Party, but I had very little idea of how people lived, how they cooked, what they did for fun, how they got married—that whole human element was missing. In the coverage of North Korea, I only saw the people as these automatons marching in parades and doing mass gymnastics—I never saw a certain humanity behind the people.