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N. Korea a test case for Bush

Pay attention to the brouhaha at the White House Wednesday when President Bush shot down the hopes of President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea that the Bush team would quickly resume negotiations with North Korea. This episode highlights the fine line between a tough, effective foreign policy and a tough, ineffective foreign policy, and it raises the question: On which side of that line does Bush plan to reside?

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who represents the pragmatic, hard-nosed internationalists within the administration, declared that the Bush team intended "to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off" in negotiations with North Korea to curb its production and sale of ballistic missiles. But Bush, after meeting Kim Wednesday, brusquely indicated that the missile talks with the North would not be resumed anytime soon.

What gives? This is the second time in two weeks that Powell has been out of step.

Question: Is the Bush foreign policy going to be a more hard-nosed internationalism, in which we galvanize our allies around tougher policies toward North Korea, Iraq, Russia and China but still get meaningful things done and hold our alliances together? Or is it going to be an ideologically driven, hard-line approach?

Personally, I think there is nothing wrong with Bush, in his first dealings with North Korea, coming on as a real skeptic. Kim Jong Il, the "dear leader" of North Korea, is a wild man who understands only force and thinks that's all we understand, too. That's why whenever his people are starving more than usual and he needs a quick influx of potatoes, he digs a suspicious, reactor-size hole, and we pay him with potatoes or oil or a harmless reactor to stop.

It's sort of silly, but it's worked to keep peace and restrain the North's nuclear capabilities. Given this background, though, it is legitimate for Bush to signal the North that we're not buying that carpet again.

But then what? One approach says: "We don't have an interest in just letting North Korea collapse, because it could blow up the whole peninsula and even threaten Japan."

The other approach says: "We're the tough guys. We don't really believe in arms control. And we don't care if North Korea collapses. Deep down we don't ever want a deal with North Korea, because that would eliminate the very missile threat we've been hyping to justify spending $60 billion on a missile defense shield." Which is Bush's approach?

Which approach Bush adopts depends in part on how he understands North Korea's past behavior. But if he doesn't understand that, or he hasn't applied himself to understanding it, or he is so wedded to his own Star Wars missile shield he doesn't want anything to get in the way then, Houston, we have a problem.

New York Times News Service