As the world's leaders at the G-8 summit pondered debt relief and other third-world topics, President Clinton's attention seemed to focus elsewhere - on issues in the Middle East and North Korea that could affect the legacy of his presidency.
Mr. Clinton arrived in Japan a day late and left several hours earlier than scheduled yesterday, in a rush to return to intensive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which are moving into their 14th day at Camp David in Maryland.
During his abbreviated stay at the gathering of the world's seven leading industrialized nations and Russia, Clinton received an update from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Mr. Putin's recent visit to North Korea.
North Korean President Kim Jong Il appears to have presented Putin with a quid pro quo: North Korea would scrap its missile program - of deep concern in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul - in exchange for international assistance in launching space satellites.
Clinton administration officials worry that such satellite launches could give the North Koreans access to sensitive technology that could be used to threaten their Asian neighbors and ultimately the US.
A voluntary dismantling of Pyongyang's missile project would also disarm one of the Clinton administration's chief justifications for funding a controversial national missile defense (NMD) system, or so-called "missile shield." Russia, as well as China and even some of America's allies, are strongly opposed to the NMD proposal and warn that it will only refuel the arms race. Moreover, Russia and China argue that such a program would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
The Clinton administration is not sure what Mr. Kim - a once-reclusive Communist autocrat who showed the world a surprising new face at last month's reconciliation summit with South Korea - actually has in mind.
"What we don't know is whether they're proposing, in effect, to use the space launch services of other countries as most countries do," says Jim Steinberg, deputy national security adviser, in a briefing with reporters.
"Or, are they asking that others who have the capability, in effect, give them space boosters to use themselves, which we would have concerns about because it would give them access to the technology," Mr. Steinberg adds.
Says one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity: "A very dangerous idea would be that the international community would provide actual launch capability - that is, rockets to be launched - from North Korean territory."
Potentially there could be something attractive in the proposed tradeoff: Clinton could go down in history as helping to thaw one of the cold war's last threatening states. While skeptical, US officials are open to considering the North Korean proposal. "We certainly are interested in exploring not only Russia's understanding, but the North Koreans' understanding of what might be possible by way of an arrangement where North Korea would truly give up and unplug - and unplug is the key - its ballistic missile program," said the official.
So far, South Korean officials seem open to the concept. "The whole idea of the engagement policy is to let the North Koreans come out of their own closet, and let them talk with the Western world," says Dr. Moon Chung In, one of Seoul's delegates to last month's historic North-South Korea summit in Pyongyang.
"I don't think a satellite for communication involves any kind of transfer of critical technologies to the North [Korea], otherwise the Pentagon would never agree to it," says Dr. Moon.
As long as Clinton pursues a missile shield program - which could help him at home as a Democrat strong on defense, as well as provide a boost to the election prospects of Vice President Al Gore - Putin can be expected to keep polishing Kim Jong Il's image.
"The very attempt to build this [NMD] freaks out the Chinese and the Russians - and that worries the Japanese," says Warren Bass, associate editor at Foreign Affairs in New York.
"Putin is now making this dramatic outreach to North Korea because it ties into the missile defense wrangling," says Mr. Bass. "If the Americans are saying that this is a dangerous guy and we need a missile defense system, he [Putin] is reaching out as a statement of how possible it is to do business with that regime."
Meanwhile, Clinton cherishes the hope that he can go down in history as the president who helped broker a final peace agreement in the Middle East. The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians face a crucial stage as Clinton returns to Camp David today.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society