Clinton Looks Toward Asia

PRESIDENT Clinton is concentrating this weekend on an area rich with promise for the United States - Asia and the Pacific.

After his foreign policy team's problems in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, it must be a relief for the president to turn to a part of the world where his administration has shown foresight and imagination.

Unfortunately, it is a region that also contains a potential crisis - North Korea. The crisis has in part been heightened by the administration's weakness in just such areas as Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti.

In Seattle this week, Mr. Clinton has seized the opportunity to meet with leaders from 14 other Pacific Rim countries. Ostensibly he is in Seattle for the annual ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, a little-known but increasingly significant organization dedicated to regional economic cooperation. But at an ``informal conference'' after the APEC meeting, Clinton is convening what, in effect, is the first Asia-Pacific summit. (The ``informal'' designation is designed to circumvent such political delicacies as bringing China and Taiwan together).

The conference will enable the president to do several things:

* Develop personal relationships with key Asian leaders.

* Focus American and international attention on a vibrant part of the world that is growing faster economically than any other region.

* Significantly advance his concept of a ``New Pacific Community'' that he outlined in his speech in Tokyo last July.

The Seattle meetings will consider liberalization of trade and investment restrictions among the participating nations, and ponder the long-term prospect of an Asia-Pacific free trade area.

The president will need to be deft. Some Asian and Pacific leaders fear that the ebullient US may try to dominate APEC. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, for one, favors an Asian trade grouping that would exclude Western powers like the US, Canada, and Australia. China is eager to expand trade with the US, but edgy about Clinton's requirement that Beijing ease up on political repression.

But if the summit goes well, Clinton will have underlined the US involvement in the most dynamic economic growth area in the world and positioned his country for a 21st century that many believe will come to be known as the Asia-Pacific century.

But there is a shadow over this engagement in Asia. It is that of sinister North Korea, whose discredited communist ideology makes it incompatible with a grouping of market-oriented nations. Isolated and unpredictable, North Korea is, by all accounts, busily building a nuclear bomb, or bombs, but trying to hide the evidence from the international community.

It has blocked attempts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its suspect nuclear installations. It has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has strung the US along in on-again, off-again negotiations that have gone nowhere.

In his Tokyo speech in July, Clinton was forceful about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. ``It is pointless,'' he said, ``for them to try to develop nuclear weapons. If they ever used them, it would be the end of their country.'' Tough talk indeed, but the problem is that the administration has used tough talk in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, and it has been ineffective.

North Korea may be remote, but its leader, Kim Il Sung, still reads the newspapers. Is he gambling that Clinton's tough talk is merely talk, and that North Korea is safe from American retribution? It is a dangerous calculation, and upon its outcome could depend peace or war in an Asian region that otherwise could be a success story for Clinton's foreign policy.

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