Clinton trip plays well at home: The President's adept Tokyo summit performance helped restore his authority, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

THE TRADE breakthroughs in Tokyo trumpeted by the White House may be less than meets the eye. Others say a string of protocol gaffes by the President marred Saturday's state dinner in South Korea. But by the yardstick that matters - how it plays back home - Bill Clinton's Asian trip, his debut on the international stage, has been a thumping success.

For months latching on to every failure, the columnists, pundits and others who mould the accepted view of a presidency have praised Mr Clinton's performance at the G7 summit. By common consent, he displayed authority, tact and leadership.

This July week has been a triumph for the White House packaging machine - guided by David Gergen, the former adviser of Republican presidents who was summoned in those dark hours at the end of May.

Before the meeting, the administration propelled expectations so low that mere agreement on a communique would have been counted a success. In the event, the Seven came up with an unexpected agreement to reduce trade barriers and a dollars 3bn ( pounds 2bn) aid package for Russia that was slightly larger than expected.

In both instances the President claimed the credit loudly and used the G7 gathering to send the message that the US's well-being depends on the global economy. In 1992, Mr Clinton saw how a perceived indifference to domestic problems cost George Bush the presidency. He will not make the same mistake: the summit might be in Tokyo, but its real purpose was jobs back home.

Mr Clinton and his planners played the card of youth, underlining the change, fresh ideas and energy which, for all his missteps, he symbolises for much of the world. Thus did commentators here read his meeting with the new generation of Japanese opposition politicians, 10 days before next Sunday's general election.

Finally, there was the summit's postscript, a 'framework' agreement on ending the trade feud between Washington and Tokyo. On close inspection the US has failed on arguably the crucial point, unable to extract from Japan a promise to reduce its trade surplus to a specific percentage of GDP. But earlier talk was that nothing would be achieved. Mr Clinton can say he is 'doing something' to create jobs at home.

The skilful control of the media message extended into South Korea. Admittedly at the banquet offered by President Kim Young Sam, Mr Clinton apparently had his hosts twitching with discomfort, first over an erroneous reference to the President's wife as 'Mrs Kim' (in Korea married women keep their maiden names), and then over a protocol breach over the use of an interpreter. More important though were the television pictures the next day: of Mr Clinton determined at the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and of his enthusiastic welcome among the US servicemen stationed there, complete with a saxophone workout. After the roughest start of any modern presidency, Mr Clinton seems to have found his sea-legs.

PANMUNJOM, Korea - Mr Clinton ventured yesterday to within feet of North Korea, warning that if the Communists developed and used nuclear weapons 'it would be the end of their country', AP reports.

Widespread pain, page 20

(Photograph omitted)

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