Reporter's Notebook: The View From Beijing

The six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program held in Beijing over the last few days were plugged by state TV here as the "road to reconciliation."

But after three days of inconclusive talks at the Diaoyutai State Guest House (search) in the Chinese capital, any reconciliation still seems a long way off.

The countries involved — China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and the United States — all came with their own well-publicized positions. And most of them left with their positions unchanged.

The problem was always one of trust. The two major antagonists, North Korea and the U.S., just don’t trust each other.

The main sticking point at these talks seems to have been allegations that Pyongyang (search) has a nuclear weapons program as well as the plutonium one it has already admitted to.

North Korea refused to say it had a nuclear program and the U.S. refused to drop the issue.

With such fixed positions there was always little chance of a breakthrough.

As a member of the press you are a complete outsider in these meetings.

Tight security means you spend half your time at the gate outside the guesthouse watching embassy cars zooming in and out carrying dignitaries to a one on one meeting, or more likely getting fresh instructions from their leaders back home.

There is the odd news conference by the hosts but it’s never enough to give you a headline story.
The downtime, though, gives you a chance to see the new China in all its glory.

I first came here as a reporter 11 years ago when Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong visited Beijing.

It was only a few years after the Tiananmen Square (search) massacre.

The Chinese capital was a dark and foreboding city then.

Its new free market initiatives were only just starting. A good barometer for a journalist of how advanced an economy has become usually revolves around how many Western bars there are in a city.

On that trip I found just one!

Now though Beijing is a completely different city. When I first visited there was only a couple of skyscrapers. Now the place is full of them and more are going up all the time, as well as construction for the 2008 Olympics here.

Where once the city was full of bicycles — and yes some people still wore Mao hats — now the streets are full of cars. And newly opened shopping malls stock the top Western brands.

The reason I am highlighting this is because, in part, these talks are all about modernization.

China has managed, so far, to open up its economy without too much instability and keep its communist leadership in command of what seems like a very capitalist economy to an outsider.

The reason I mention this is because North Korea has been watching closely what has been going on in its northern neighbor since 1989, when then leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open China to the outside world.

Pyongyang has also had to sit and watch its southern neighbor, South Korea, becoming a first world economy after being one of the poorest countries in the world at the end of the Korean War.

Pyongyang has been trying to take its first steps to open up its struggling economy. It has experimented with special economic zones, but investment has been scarce in the wake of the nuclear standoff.

I remember last year going to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and a U.S. officer telling me he believed the North Korean people have been brainwashed — because of the war they treat their leader Kim Jong Il as a god.

Pyongyang’s propaganda machine continues to describe North Korea as a communist paradise but report after report from there says the economy is near collapse and its people are starving.

The problem North Korea faces is, it seems to want to change but its leaders just don’t know how to do it without the regime collapsing like a house of cards when its people find out what the reality is.

The reality for Pyongyang in respect of the talks is its latest attempt at nuclear blackmail just isn’t working like it has in the past to help shore up its economy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these talks was the fact that North Korea was prepared to debate the issue for so long here.

So where do we go from here?

More talks are planned, but the reality is without an agreement here, Pyongyang has more time to produce more weapons-grade plutonium.

It looks like a long and bumpy road ahead before the North Korea nuclear issue is sorted out.