Artificial Intelligence technology is used at the Pyongyang Teacher Training College in Pyongyang. (Video footage by Kenji Minemura)

The Pyongyang Teacher Training College was filled with high-tech gadgets, model students and technologically advanced instruction methods using virtual reality.

But therein lies the problem.

Everything was “virtual.” The teachers and students read lines with facial expressions resembling robots.

I wondered if I could get to know their true inner feelings.

I recalled a method used in “Columbo,” a popular U.S. television detective series, which was also shown in Japan from the 1970s.

When the Peter Falk character, Detective Columbo, chats with criminal suspects, he appears to wrap up his questioning and leaves the room. But he immediately returns, saying something like, “I forgot to ask one thing.”

The suspects, feeling relaxed by Columbo’s initial line of questioning, are caught off guard and reveal their true feelings to the detective’s key follow-up questions.

I had actually used this technique when I was reporting from China. So why not attempt it in North Korea?

I returned to the biology classroom to pick up my camera bag. The only students who remained there were two females who didn’t notice me and appeared to be having fun chatting about fashion.

When my presence startled them, I asked about their impression of Japan.

“I have heard that the technology there is very high and Japanese people are very diligent. The food there is good, isn’t it? I want to visit one day,” one of the students said, with a soft facial expression and a smile.

When I told them that I came from Tokyo via China, and that if a direct flight was introduced from Tokyo to Pyongyang, it would take only about two hours, their interest was piqued.

About 10 years ago when I was studying in Beijing, I was asked about Japan’s recognition of history and its war responsibility from North Korean students. But the situation was different this time.

Despite the limited time, I felt that I was able to see the students’ true faces, which could not be discerned on a tour organized by the North Korean government.

BEHIND THE NUCLEAR TESTS

This time around, the North Korean government chose not only the Pyongyang Teacher Training College but also the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Silk Mill, the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory and a farm.

One thing in common among those places is that they have all been visited by Kim Jong Un. He had given instructions to renew facilities that were getting older and less effective.

The Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Silk Mill was named after Kim Il Sung’s second wife, the mother of Kim Jong Il.

I was guided through the new seven-story white building in the center of a factory site.

Kim Myong Hwan, 56, the factory manager, explained proudly: “When our dear marshal, Kim Jong Un, visited here, he said the highest level building should be built for the employees, and he decided on the location and design. Amid the difficult international situation, he mobilized many soldiers for the construction and completed it in only four months or so.”

The manager said he guided Kim Jong Un during his visit to the factory in June 2016.

If the building was completed four months after Kim’s visit, it would have coincided with North Korea’s fifth nuclear test when friction with the United States was intensifying.

At that time, China also strengthened sanctions against Pyongyang, putting considerable strain on North Korea.

Even in such a situation, I thought it was extraordinary that Kim would order so many soldiers to build the factory.

In January 2017, Kim visited the factory again and praised the new facility: “This factory is a monumental creation showing that the degree of our country’s architectural skills has reached a high level.”

Kim also gave instructions when he visited the factory’s futon production division, saying: “Whether or not our product can attract our citizens is important. We should create a bulk of good quality futon.”

I believe that Kim really cares about improving the quality of life in the country and satisfying the needs of the public.

North Korea, much like China, is run as a dictatorship, holds no free and democratic elections, has no opposition parties nor any independent press. Despite this lack of accountability, it appears that the leaders are far more attuned to their citizens than would be expected.

Since these dictators were not elected by their citizens, they are missing a key component of political “legitimacy” enjoyed by democratically elected leaders.

This leads them to be particularly aware of people’s sentiments and public opinion.

REFORMER OR TRADITIONALIST

During my six-day visit, I came to believe that North Korea has the will to seriously tackle economic development.

An increasing number of apartments and hotels have been built in Pyongyang, although basic infrastructure, such as transportation systems and sewerage lines, have been largely delayed.

Often when I used restrooms there, the water would not flow. Sometimes I had to pour water from a tub into the toilet.

In April, Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom. The North Korean leader reportedly said: “To be honest, my concern is transportation in my country. It is not developed enough and might bother you.”

I think these words came from the bottom of Kim’s heart.

During my time as the chief foreign affairs correspondent in Washington D.C., I was consistently asked the same exact question by Korea specialists and U.S. government officials: “Do you believe Kim Jong Un to be a reformer? Or is he simply a traditionalist who is just telling people what they want to hear?”

Despite restrictions on the free flow of information, the North Korean people’s consciousness has been changing, particularly with the rapid increase in the number of smartphone users and improvements in technology. Given the population’s greater awareness of the world around them, Kim, one of the youngest world leaders in his early 30s, will need to greatly improve the country’s economy to ensure a stable regime for the next several decades.

As one of the few people in North Korea with unfettered access to the world, Kim recognizes the importance of economic growth more than anyone.

(PART1: Kim Jong Un’s care reflected in high-tech school, infrastructure)

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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.