Fresh from his Broadway triumph -- his Iraq indictment at the United Nations -- Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was pelted with flowers -- and questions about our incomprehensible policy on North Korea. Even the most persuasive man on the planet cannot sell this mix of huffiness and obtuseness, which Sen. John Kerry, in an excess of charity, called "fuzzy."
President Bush is casual about inconsistencies. His policies are highly personal and shamelessly political. On North Korea, he has outdone himself. He insists that the problem of an outlaw dictatorship that has gone nuclear with a vengeance can be solved with diplomacy -- but he refuses to talk to North Koreans. They are so desperate for dialogue that they dispatched two envoys to New Mexico to talk to an American they knew would speak to them, Bill Richardson, the new governor of his state and Bill Clinton's U.N. ambassador.
Sen. Richard Lugar, the conservative but extremely rational chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Powell, between compliments, that he thought we really must sit down with the little madman with the passion for plutonium who runs the show in Pyongyang. Powell said lamely, "We want to talk in a multilateral forum." That is, we are urging the North's neighbors, China, Japan and Russia, to jawbone Kim Jong Il until we get around to doing it ourselves.
Kim issues a primal scream almost daily. He threatens all-out war, a first strike against our troops in South Korea.
And yet, while every hour that passes increases our president's urge to go to war with Iraq, there seems to be no way he will pay any attention to, much less fire on, North Korea, whose nuclear program is not in the subjunctive but unfolding before our eyes.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the committee two days before his boss's appearance that "within a month" we'd get to talks with the tyrant in North Korea. Anything sooner would be "rewarding bad conduct." Yes, it would, but diplomacy is primarily about bad conduct; that's what it is for -- to talk people who are out of line back into line. If we have any other choice, nobody has mentioned it yet.
At a Post-sponsored Korea-U.S. conference on what we must not call a crisis, a former Korean ambassador to the United States brought up the delicate subject of an "incentive" in dealing with North Korea. Pyongyang will put a price tag on its reform. The president vows he will not be "blackmailed."
Maybe if we call it bribery instead, the president will find it acceptable. Bribery is an option we did not hesitate to deploy in Turkey. It was exhibiting considerable reluctance to housing our troops on its territory. A timely package of aid seems to have calmed the Turks' nerves.
Bush has resisted the inevitable on North Korea from the first days of his administration, when he all but threw Kim Dae Jung, the Nobel Prize-winning president of South Korea, out of the Oval Office. He also humiliated Powell, who had unwarily said at a news conference that the Bush administration would "pick up where President Clinton . . . left off." Bush was furious.
Now he is irritated with Kim Jong Il for jostling him when he has his rifle cocked and ready to fire at Saddam Hussein. It's an inexcusable distraction.
The week's most hopeful moment came in the Foreign Relations Committee, when three former U.S. envoys -- Ashton Carter, Stephen Bosworth and Donald Gregg -- talked knowledgably about North and South Korea, about history and attitudes. Gregg, who is now president of the Korea Society, says the most-asked questions about W involve his contrast to his father. That answer is easy: Bush I was a New Englander, Bush II is a Texan.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller mused aloud about Kim Jong Il's state of mind about his legacy: his economy wrecked, his people starving, his nuclear weapon his only security blanket. They were, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, trying to climb into somebody else's head, a feckless activity, he suggested.
But somebody in the White House better start climbing into some Korean heads before the problem turns into a situation that even George Bush will have to admit is a crisis, one that would be beyond his powerful secretary of state to put right.