WHEN former President Carter returned from North Korea on June 19, it seemed his trip had allowed the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, to save face.
``Face'' is a concept that often gets bandied about in discussions about Asia, particularly when Westerners are doing the talking. In this case, it is arguable that President Clinton saved as much face as Mr. Kim did.
Many observers, some with relief and some with disgust, said Mr. Carter had finally given the Korean dictator what he really wants: respect from the global superpower.
According to Pyon Jin Il, a journalist who covers the Korean Peninsula from Tokyo, North Korea's state-run media played the Carter visit this way: The former American president has come to meet our ``Great Leader'' President Kim Il Sung, to ask him to solve the nuclear problem. Carter bowed before Mr. Kim and pleaded with him to solve the nuclear problem, and then Kim accepted his request. The ``nuclear problem,'' of course, refers to the international concern that North Korea has been building nuclear weapons and that the country's unwillingness to accede to full inspections is evidence that it has something to hide. The North Koreans have said their program is peaceful, called the inspections infringements on their sovereignty, and warned that the West is provoking another war.
Before Carter's visit, the North Koreans had withdrawn from the United Nations agency that monitors nuclear non-proliferation. The United States was seeking international support for economic sanctions against North Korea, and the possibility of confrontation was in the air.
But Kim told Carter he would freeze North Korea's nuclear program if the US agreed to a third round of talks and held off on sanctions. The North Korean leader, through Carter, said he would agree to a summit meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam. There is skepticism in Seoul, Tokyo, and even Washington as to whether these offers were real concessions, but the US claimed victory and decided that they were good enough to warrant a return to the negotiating table.
Previous attempts at a summit between the two have failed, but negotiators announced on June 28 that the meeting would be held in Pyongyang on July 25-27. The US and North Korea will meet on July 8 in Geneva for talks that may lead to better relations - along with much needed economic assistance and trade opportunities - which are often said to be what Kim is really after.
Carter's visit, say the ``face'' analysts, showed Kim that the US was ready to make a deal and helped soothe his pride in a way that made room for a policy change. Thus the switch from belligerence to diplomacy, or so it seems for now.
But what of Clinton's face? Amid all the controversy about the appropriateness of Carter's visit, one thing was almost forgotten -
that the US was getting nowhere in its efforts to build a consensus behind its call for sanctions. China, North Korea's last important ally and the only country that can really hurt the North's economy, was steadfast in its insistence that the international community resolve the crisis through negotiations. Japan, the other power in the region, was saying that China's cooperation in a sanctions effort was paramount.
``Face'' may be an Asian concept, but the beneficiaries of face-saving diplomacy can be found the world over.