After several days of concentrated diplomacy, President Clinton returns home from east Asia with key countries moving toward a common approach to the region's rogue state, North Korea.
It's a strategy reminiscent of the president's dealings with Iraq and other hot spots, with Mr. Clinton lining up leaders behind a message in an effort to turn up the pressure on a wayward state.
In this case, the message is that North Korea must turn from its military path or possibly forfeit the economic and diplomatic rewards it gains by cooperating.
The collective approach is significant, analysts say, because it elevates the "Korea problem" from a Washington-Seoul issue to a regional one. And with South Korea, Japan, the United States, and to some extent China speaking with one voice, Pyongyang is under increasing pressure to allow inspections of a possible underground nuclear-weapons site and to back off from its intensified missile program.
"This raises the stakes" for North Korea, says James Laney, former Clinton ambassador to South Korea. If its leaders fly in the face of strong regional opposition, Mr. Laney says, "then we can only assume that they really not only are determined to be isolated, but are [up to] something - and that's a very serious situation."
While these four countries may be unified in urging the North to change course, they are saying nothing detailed about what they would do if it doesn't - except to indicate that neither Congress nor the Japanese parliament would be likely to continue aid under such circumstances.
As one US official involved in the discussions says, "We are not at the point of fine-tuning what the 'or else' is."
Critics argue that a threat is meaningless unless the stakes are known, but the official maintains this is not the time to back the unpredictable North into a corner with specifics about retaliatory measures.
"We're not headed for confrontation; we're headed in a concentrated way to find a resolution to the problem," the official said. "This isn't the Iraq story where 'or else' is a military option." The approach is having an effect, he added, since the North Koreans just agreed to another round of talks in New York Dec. 4 about its suspected nuclear-weapons site.
Despite the disturbing developments in North Korea, Clinton said he did not want to change his two-track policy of engagement backed by a strong military commitment to South Korea. He vigorously supported South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine" policy of greater economic and cultural contact with the North, illustrated by a historic cruise over the weekend bringing the first South Korean tourists to North Korea.
In his Nov. 21 joint press conference with Mr. Dae-Jung, Clinton asked those present - and North Koreans - to consider that "nothing could ever be put into that hole in the ground - given our defense partnership here - that would give the North Koreans as much advantage, as much power, as much wealth, as much happiness as more of those ships going up there full of people from here."
But "signs of danger have intensified," Clinton told US troops in South Korea yesterday. Those signs include North Korea's intensified missile program - motivated in part by profits. This comes on top of the surprise missile firing over Japan Aug. 31.
Others offer a far stronger description of the months ahead. "We're heading for a crisis," says William Taylor, a Korea specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. North Korea, he believes, will not ultimately allow inspections for fear of being caught violating a 1994 agreement in which it promised to abandon its nuclear-weapons program.
That would put Washington and others in the position of having to weigh options like cutting food aid or fuel to struggling North Koreans. "Are we willing to face down the leadership of North Korea?" Mr. Taylor asks rhetorically.
The seriousness of the situation, as well as a new review of US policy on North Korea, prompted last week's intense discussions on the subject. It was the top security issue in talks between the president and his counterparts in Japan and South Korea, and between Vice President Al Gore and China's leader when they were both in Malaysia at an economic summit.
At the same time, communication was flowing on the next level down. A US team, visiting North Korea to talk about inspecting the underground site, broke formation on their way home, peeling off like Blue Angels to report to Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul. Combined with summits of leaders in the East Asian triangle themselves, the amount of coordination going on was "unprecedented," said Taylor.
With Clinton at his side, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi promised Nov. 20 to take a "coordinated posture" with South Korea and the US toward North Korea. Similarly, Mr. Dae-Jung said that, "depending on how the North reacts, ... the United States, Korea, and Japan and other countries can consult and come out with a common response."
The "other countries" was a veiled reference to China, which, although not fully on board with any official commitment, has indicated it shares concern about its communist neighbor.