President Bush's shabby treatment of Kim Dae Jung of South Korea remains a mystery, but the first political returns are in: North Korea, obviously bent on rubbing in Kim's humiliation in the Oval Office, has canceled scheduled peace negotiations with Seoul.
Outside the White House, Kim Dae Jung is much admired. He is seen as a great man, in a class with Nelson Mandela, another valiant visionary who endured a lifetime of sacrifice and suffering to realize a patriotic dream. Kim's breakthrough visit to North Korea won him the Nobel Peace Prize _ but not, for some reason, the regard of George W. Bush.
Not only did the president withhold his endorsement of Kim's risky but promising "sunshine policy" to bring the two Koreas together, but he went out of his way, in body English, to convey how cross and bored he was with his visitor.
It was a day for a double whammy: The president also felled his own secretary of state, Colin Powell, who had announced the day before the meeting that he expected to pick up where the Clinton administration left off in its talks to persuade Kim Jong Il, the paranoid chief of North Korea, to renounce production of nuclear weapons. There would be no negotiations, Bush said icily, until his administration has reviewed the North Korean situation.
Baffled observers on Capitol Hill speculated that Bush was really mad at Powell for nudging him into a position he was not ready to take. But others think he was sore at Kim Dae Jung over a joint declaration he issued in Seoul with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in defense of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty _ which of course Bush longs to shred because it forbids the deployment of the foreign policy project closest to his heart, the nuclear missile defense system.
Arms control advocates accuse Bush of turning his back on a rare opportunity to stabilize the wildly rocking North Korea, which puts manufacture of nuclear weapons ahead of feeding its people. Spurgeon Keeney of the Arms Control Association says Bush is "trying to build up the case for building an extremely expensive and provocative system that doesn't work _ it's madness."
Democrats who were startled and puzzled by the diplomatic debacle of March 7 had nothing to say. They are cowed these days, and only Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, protested. He said he was disappointed at Bush's failure to signal that he is "willing to talk and negotiate if certain things happen as opposed to emphasizing that these guys are bad guys, period." North Korea's cancellation of further talks with the south, Biden thinks, is dangerous and could ratchet up the situation.
President Clinton's first national security adviser, Tony Lake, thinks there has a been a good deal of "overthinking" in theories about Bush's motives and strategy in the put-down of Kim Dae Jung. He thinks that what it all means is that the Bush team, despite its vaunted reputation for management expertise, just hasn't got its act together on Asian policy. He thinks in the end that Powell's sensible suggestions about exploring "the many promising aspects that turned up" in the Clinton talks should be pursued.
Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser during the hectic final weeks in office, thinks that what the commotion signifies is what he delicately calls "the instinct against continuity that new administrations suffer from." In this case, that involves a tacit admission that Clinton might have been on the right track. Berger says that Bush's suspicions about bristling, bellicose North Korea are well-founded.
Kim Jong Il is universally regarded as a piece of work _ he is psychopathically secretive, and his country is a shambles. But he trusts that Powell will prevail, and that in time the Bush administration will settle down with his formula. Kim Jong Il will take a great deal of hand-holding and schmoozing _ something Clintonites were superlatively good at, but not very viable options in an administration that prides itself on being tough with Commie tyrants.
Bush has gotten bad reviews for his first major foreign policy encounter. If he is to redeem himself from charges of making policy in a petulant and petty manner, he will have to say something nice about Kim Dae Jung and his "sunshine policy." It won't be enough not to be Bill Clinton if he's seen as prizing a gadget in outer space over world peace.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.
Universal Press Syndicate