After splashing into the fishbowl that is the White House, a new president is forced to acquire an education in public. In his early lessons, George W. Bush has learned from his few mistakes, and mostly corrected them.
But last week Mr. Bush stumbled, and needs a rapid recovery. He rashly reversed the US stance toward North Korea and cut off talks. The North then cut off talks with the South. And a downward spiral began on the Korean peninsula, the hottest remnant of the cold war.
Bush's action now runs the risk that the hermit nation's testy tyrant, Kim Jong Il, will resume making the nuclear material and missiles that could reach American shores. At the least, if Mr. Kim restarts his weapons program, it could destabilize the delicate military balance in Northeast Asia.
A little known fact is that soon after the North's secret nuclear program was uncovered in the early 1990s, the Pentagon made fresh preparations for war. By 1994, however, the US had a deal with North Korea to mothball the graphite reactor in Yongbyon that had produced bomb-grade material. A few years later, after one North Korean missile flew over Japan, the US was also able to have the North shelve its missile program.
Steady diplomatic engagement with Kim and offers of food, oil, and two "safe" nuclear power plants (along with a little help from China) have helped to begin luring the North out of its explosive cave. That must not stop.
Bush risks ending that process because of a deep distrust of the North and its past behavior. There's only one problem: North Korea will not let the United States ignore it. The North fears for its survival and could restart its weapons program in weeks.
Bush also risks creating a perception among US allies that he may actually want a North Korean missile threat to justify his expensive plans for a nuclear missile defense system. That view is a bit too cynical. But in foreign affairs, perceptions count.
To give Bush the benefit of the doubt, it may be that his foreign policy advisers still haven't fully reviewed US policy toward North Korea. Once they have, they will come around to the logic that drove the Clinton administration to use "soft" engagement and cooperation to achieve a temporary halt to the North's dangerous developments, while still maintaining the strong US military deterrence that has existed for decades.
North Korea isn't so much a state as it is a cult of personality built around Kim Jong Il, notes the recent US ambassador to Seoul, Stephen Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In dealing with a personality-driven state, the US must avoid raising Kim's fears while offering incentives to save his country from famine and poverty.
In his weakness, Kim can act irrationally. But after he concentrated his small resources into big-power weapons, the US was able to coax him to go down a different path. Why push him back into his old ways?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor