Footage from Asahi Shimbun writer Kenji Minemura's visit in North Korea from Sept. 6 to 11, corresponding with the country's 70th anniversary of its founding. (Video footage by Kenji Minemura)

PYONGYANG--North Korea was something like a mirage. I could see it in front of me but couldn’t touch it. Sometimes it appeared distorted and upside-down, an unknown world that we couldn’t fully grasp.

For six years when I was a correspondent in Beijing, I went to the border between China and North Korea a few dozen times for fixed-point observations to get to know the country. I nearly crossed the 1,300-kilometer border on those occasions.

Over the wire-mesh fences at the border, I talked with soldiers of the North Korean People’s Army about their equipment and food situation. North Koreans who had fled to China provided me with updated information about conditions in their homeland. I also spoke to North Korean farmers over a small river.

After renting a fishing boat, I took pictures of the North Korean side from the Yalu River flowing on the border with China and was chased off by an army patrol vessel.

However, during these repeated excursions, I had never crossed the border even once. I felt close to North Korea, but the border was too high of a hurdle.

Fortunately, I was finally able to visit the country, for six days. The purpose of the trip was to cover North Korea’s 70th anniversary of its founding, and I joined about 150 media representatives, including those from Japan, U.S. cable TV news channel CNN and China Central Television (CCTV), after receiving permission from the North Korean government.

SMILE TURNS INTO FROWN

A familiar airplane with a red line on its body awaited my boarding at the second terminal of Beijing Capital International Airport on Sept. 6. It was a plane operated by North Korea’s Air Koryo.

When I was a correspondent in China, I often went to that terminal to keep an eye out for important North Korean figures entering and exiting flights to and from Pyongyang.

Even as I passed through the gate with excitement that I was finally heading to Pyongyang, I still didn’t feel that I would be able to get on board.

A cabin attendant wearing a dark blue one-piece sleeveless dress with two badges of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il attached welcomed me with a smile. When I tried to take her picture, she put up her hands to block my attempt.

“You are not allowed to take pictures at all in the airplane,” she said with a suddenly stern look.

This episode confirmed that I was heading to North Korea.

A British aircraft survey company gave Air Koryo “one star” out of the top-ranked five stars.

Still, the interior looked newer than expected. The airplane was a Russian TU-204, a model that has been produced since the 1990s. I heard that the fuselage was newly manufactured for international flights.

North Korean music blared through the television in the airplane. The same cabin attendant walked up to me. Her smile had returned.

After setting down a small hamburger on my tray, she asked, “What would you like to drink?”

The options were water or grape or orange soda, which tasted like Fanta. The burger was average.

After about 30 minutes, an announcement said, “This airplane is now flying over the Yalu River.”

I had finally crossed the border. But my feelings were mixed with a rush of excitement and a sense of guilt that I had done something bad.

Adding to my concerns was the fact that a Japanese man had been detained by the North Korean government in August.

As the aircraft descended, I could see Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport surrounded by farmland.

The airplane landed and taxied beside a glass-covered terminal that was built in 2015 and was almost the same size as local airports in Japan.

NO PICTURES OF SOLDIERS

Surprisingly, I smoothly passed through the quarantine and immigration checks. But when I placed my carry-on luggage on an X-ray device at customs, a tall soldier rushed up to me and said, “Don’t you have a cellphone?”

I brought my cellphone from Japan to stay in contact with The Asahi Shimbun. But since North Korea bans the use of foreign cellphones, I had to use a new SIM card for communication in the country.

My cellphone contained almost no data because I hadn’t used it, but the soldier still checked it in detail.

It was clear the North Korean side was especially sensitive to cellphone use. I was not allowed to even carry it when covering an event in which executives of the ruling Workers’ Party were in attendance.

When I walked through the arrivals gate, a woman called my name in fluent Japanese: “Welcome to Pyongyang.”

She was a North Korean foreign ministry official who provided translations and guidance for my visit. A driver accompanied us for the entire visit. I was not allowed to move around on my own.

“I have one condition,” she said. “You can shoot photos anywhere you want, but please don’t take pictures of any soldiers.”

I had expected a variety of restrictions for my work, but this was the only condition. It seemed to show that North Korean officials were not too worried about pictures taken in their country.

When we left the airport, it was getting dark outside. I headed toward the center of Pyongyang, and passed through wheat and corn farms for several dozen minutes.

Buses, passenger cars and taxis were on the roads, while lines had formed at gas stations.

The international community has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests, but I didn’t see any evidence that the country was really suffering because of the penalties.

As night fell, high-rise apartment buildings and monuments started to light up.

The national flag was illuminated at the top of the 105-story pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang that has been under construction for more than 30 years. I heard electricity outages often occur, but the situation seemed to have improved.

From the car window, I could see many people carrying smartphones. The country’s brands, “Pyongyang” and “Arirang,” are popular, according to the guide.

While using her vivid orange-colored cellphone, she said: “Except for the elderly, most Pyongyang citizens have smartphones. Cellphones that cost several hundred dollars (several tens of thousands of yen) are common. We can’t live without them.”

But cellphone service in North Korea is like a national version of a company network. Their phones cannot connect to foreign websites, and international phone calls are blocked.

UNFORESEEN SCENERY

The next day, media representatives headed to Pyongyang Teacher Training College, where about 1,500 teachers-to-be for kindergartens and elementary schools are nurtured.

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were set up at the entrance of the new school building that was covered with glass.

The school was renovated on Kim Jong Un’s instructions: “Aim to become a model school with a high level of science, informatization and modernization.”

In January, Kim Jong Un himself visited the school.

I was stunned after stepping into the classroom. Female students wearing virtual reality goggles in the gloomy room slowly tilted their heads during a lesson on using the VR system.

They answered the teacher’s questions by operating notebook computers connected to their goggles. I never expected to see North Korean students using VR in classrooms.

In the next classroom, an animation of children sitting in a classroom was projected on the screen.

The computer graphics, featuring artificial intelligence, were created for the purpose of providing on-the-job training for the future teachers.

“Our wise ancestors created such great Turtle Ships and often won battles against our enemies,” a female teacher-to-be said to the animated students while standing on a platform.

She was explaining a story about how ships made by Korean naval commander Yi Sun Sin destroyed the Japanese navy when warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the peninsula.

The computer graphics-derived students on the screen wore red ribbons and listened while nodding. When they felt bored, they started to look in different directions or chatted with other students.

The instructor then said: “Hi everyone. Let’s sing songs.” The students sat down again and sang.

Jong Thae Sil, 60, a teacher who was monitoring the instructor’s style, introduced reporters to the animated students on the screen: “Today, reporters from China and Japan are visiting us.”

The students said “welcome” in Korean and clapped their hands. Some spoke foreign languages.

A Chinese reporter asked the students in Chinese: “How long have you been studying Chinese?”

One student quickly responded: “Three months. I am not tired of studying.”

A Japanese reporter spoke to the students in Japanese.

One animated student looked puzzled and said in English, “Sorry, I don’t understand Japanese.”

Jong emphasized, “AI technology has significantly improved the effectiveness of teaching practices. It’s all thanks to our dear marshal, Kim Jong Un, who taught us that if we focus on education, our country’s future will be bright.”

The tour continued, showing biology, geography and manual training classes. All rooms featured sophisticated techniques, and the children all looked like model students.

But I felt uncomfortable by what I saw.

(PART2: Unelected Kim Jong Un seeks validation via public opinion)

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Kenji Minemura was a correspondent in Beijing from 2007. He later became a visiting scholar at Fairbank Center for Chinese studies at Harvard University and then worked as the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Washington DC.