A chastened Colin L. Powell stepped into the hallway outside the Oval Office to face reporters alone. It had fallen to the secretary of state to explain why, just inside the doors, President Bush was telling South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung the opposite of what Powell had told the world a day earlier.

No, the United States was not about to resume missile talks with North Korea. "There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin," Powell said, referring to his earlier remarks. "This is not the case."

The jarring about-face not only disappointed Kim but also took the celebrity secretary of state down a notch. Coming less than two months after Bush moved into the White House, the episode made the retired general look out of step with his president.

Yet three months later, Powell's patience paid off when the White House announced after a policy review that it had come full circle. Missile talks with Pyongyang could indeed resume. "Though he didn't initially prevail, he didn't give up. . . . He is not going to go off and pout," said a State Department official. "We had an opportunity to voice our views and -- voila{grv}, we're at the point where our opinion is the accepted viewpoint."

Powell's eventual success on North Korea policy demonstrated the moderate and pragmatic approach that has characterized his short tenure as the country's top diplomat. In dealing with China, Europe and the United Nations as well, he has engaged friends and foes on behalf of an administration often accused of unilateralism and has staked out centrist positions that more readily mesh with prevailing politics in foreign capitals and Congress.

And in dealing with his own administration, he has shown a quiet persistence that has meant locking horns at times with other, more ideologically conservative figures, particularly Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, without displays of pique or public petulance.

Yet it remains unclear whether Powell will provide the Bush administration with a foreign policy vision to match America's unrivaled military muscle and global responsibilities, or whether he possesses the creativity to handle such problems as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His detractors -- among Republicans who favor less engagement and Democrats who want more -- consider Powell an incrementalist.

Powell has let Rumsfeld take the lead in piloting the administration's plan for a missile shield past a key obstacle, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Powell has spoken in favor of missile defense, but is now said by those in his department to feel boxed in by the tight timeline set by the Pentagon.

Managing Dissent

And though Powell has met repeatedly with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, the secretary of state has yet to visit Moscow on a diplomatic mission, unlike Rumsfeld and the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Disagreements between Powell and the other foreign policy titans have not, by and large, translated into public disputes. Richard N. Haass, Powell's director of policy planning, noted that the administration's success in managing internal dissent is evident in the lack of news leaks.

While dismissing talk of internal rifts, particularly between him and Rumsfeld, Powell acknowledges the clash of strong wills.

"It's a good relationship and we have a good understanding. Now does it mean we don't have an argument? Sure we do," Powell said in an interview. "Do you have disagreements, do you occasionally have a serious disagreement and then you have to have milk and cookies and a nap and make up later? Sure. But I don't know any other way to run an organization. A good organization has those kinds of tensions."

Those differences were apparent on March 7, the day of Kim's White House visit, when Bush cloistered with his senior advisers for a pre-meeting briefing on Korea policy. According to Rice, however, the president did not order Powell to retract his optimistic statement about the resumption of negotiations. Powell himself suggested that minor humiliation. "Colin said, 'I think I should go walk this back,' " Rice recalled.

Behind the scenes, the secretary of state continued to press his case that the United States should negotiate to reduce the missile threat from North Korea, even if some conservatives might view the talks as succumbing to blackmail. Publicly, Powell remained contrite but also quietly confident that he had been headed in the right direction: "Sometimes you get a little too far forward in your skis," he told reporters in May.

This awkward incident raised a question that has resurfaced since, both in Washington and foreign capitals: Does Powell have the ear of his president?

The Long View

"I am the chief foreign policy operator and spokesman for the president and the American people," Powell said. He added, "I'm very, very satisfied with the arrangement. It's working as far as I'm concerned. I have all the access I need, and my phone calls are answered."

He also remains in close contact with Rice and Rumsfeld, talking with them each day in a 7:15 a.m. conference call.

But access alone does not erase the distance between the conservative world view shared by most senior foreign policymakers and Powell's more centrist and accommodating perspective. To avoid being reduced to a bit player, Powell has taken the long view, adopting the infantryman's determination to press on. It has also meant choosing his battles and at times acquiescing in policies and State Department appointments more conservative than he would like.

One of Bush's first foreign policy actions was to ban U.S. assistance to international family planning agencies that provide abortion services. Though a supporter of abortion rights, Powell said he would not buck the official position. "I have other views that are my personal views, but this is the policy of the government, and it's consistent with President Bush's campaign promises, and it is consistent with the principles of the . . . party that he represents," Powell said in an ABC television interview.

He also disagrees with the administration over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In fact, Powell was one of four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who endorsed the treaty during the Clinton White House's unsuccessful campaign for Senate ratification. But as secretary of state, Powell has made clear the Senate will not be asked to act on the CTBT.

Nor, officials said, is Powell completely comfortable with the administration's abrupt rejection of several international treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and certain elements of an emerging agreement to stem the spread of light weapons. Though he shares many of the misgivings about these treaties, he would have preferred a more collaborative effort to remedy their shortcomings, officials said.

"He knows a good part of the administration doesn't agree with his philosophy, so he's going to pick his issues and not go to the mat on cosmetics," said someone who worked closely with Powell in the first Bush administration. "His issues are the ones he feels are most significant and where his position can make a difference. I think on the ABM Treaty, he thinks that to really go to the mat would be tilting at windmills."

In fact, in the State Department's top post for arms control issues, Powell has made room for John R. Bolton, a former American Enterprise Institute scholar whose profound skepticism about treaties and international bodies places him much closer to conservative Republicans such as Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.). Powell also had to accept the nomination of John M. Klink to head the State Department's refugee bureau after his own choice was overruled by the White House. Klink, who represented the Vatican at the United Nations, espouses views on contraception that could put him at odds with Powell.

Yet as he did on Korea, Powell has bitten his tongue, saluted the president and marched forward.

It is a bearing born in large measure from a career in the Army, in particular the infantry. His ground-pounder pedigree is evident to other infantrymen who have watched Powell operate at State.

"When you look at Powell's operation, you can see . . . a methodical, disciplined way of coming at issues," said retired Col. Robert Killibrew, who spent most of his career in light infantry. "Powell began his public life as a junior infantry officer and was imprinted with a very logical and structured approach to problem-solving that is more like engineering than political science."

It was in the infantry that he first confronted the realities of the Korean peninsula. In 1973, then-Lt. Col. Powell was posted to Camp Casey, 25 miles from the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, as a battalion commander in the 2nd Infantry Division. "The atmosphere was pure war zone," Powell wrote in his memoirs. "The 2nd Infantry Division was there, to put it bluntly, to provide a buffer of American flesh and blood."

And nowhere has that infantryman's approach -- the willingness to take the lead or to keep one's head down depending on circumstance, the determination to press forward under fire -- been clearer than in the disagreement over North Korea. Good infantry commanders will "go out there and take the initiative," said Lt. Col. Bob Morris, who studies human factors in the military. But if they get too far ahead, "they say 'I jumped the gun a bit' and support the final decision."

The administration had yet to formulate a position on North Korea when Powell announced the Bush team would pick up where President Clinton left off. "He believed in the depths of his soul it was the right thing to do," said a State Department official. "We didn't realize that we were getting out front on the issue."

But when Bush gathered his chief foreign policy advisers at the White House for the pre-meeting briefing, Powell "was told: not so fast," a State Department official said. "Clearly they were at odds. [Bush] is the boss and he rules. . . . Powell is going to salute, and go off and get the job done."

Later, as the two presidents prepared to wrap up their meeting, Powell told waiting reporters that Bush had "forcefully" said the United States intended to review its relationship with the North and would be "coming up with policies unique to the administration."

Some foreign policy experts started to write Powell's political obituary. But he slogged on.

Over the next three months, Powell continued to air his personal views behind the scenes, including in the 7:15 a.m. conference calls, officials said.

Measured Policy

Powell's closest ally in the department, and indeed his closest friend, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, built momentum inside the administration for a resumption of the dialogue with North Korea during a visit to Seoul in early May. Armitage went beyond the Bush team's official position and told South Korean leaders that Washington expected to restart talks with Pyongyang "in the near future." Another Powell ally, James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, further promoted that view as head of a Korea policy review committee.

"There were different agencies involved. It wasn't all sweetness and light," said Robert A. Manning, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The North Korea matter was finally revisited by the administration's senior policymakers shortly before South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-Soo came to Washington in early June. They unanimously agreed to restart the missile talks, according to Rice.

Powell's persistence may be even more sorely tested on Iraq. While senior officials in the White House and Pentagon favor muscular U.S. support for opposition groups bent on overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Powell has pushed for the more measured policy of recasting economic sanctions. His effort to win support at the U.N. Security Council for "smart sanctions," however, stalled two months ago in the face of Russian objections. It remains far from certain that his approach will prevail when the council revisits the issue this fall.

Although State Department officials say Powell spends the bulk of his time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the violence has escalated during his tenure.

Any ambitions that Powell harbors of brokering a new Middle East deal are hamstrung by the intransigence of the two sides and reluctance of the White House and the Pentagon to ratchet up U.S. involvement.

Other key administration figures, however, have deferred to Powell on China. His quiet diplomacy won release of 24 American crew members detained on Hainan Island after their EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and made an emergency landing.

Though he has articulated U.S. policy on countless issues, Powell remains better known as a symbol than a visionary. "I think it's quite clear and obvious to most Americans that Colin Powell represents what is best about America," said State Department deputy spokesman Philip T. Reeker.

Powell so far has shown little sign of the kind of grand strategic philosophy associated with some previous secretaries of state, most notably Henry A. Kissinger.

"He's not one who's given to grand pronouncements and complicated articles in academic books about the state of the world," Rice said. But, she said, "Colin always has a sense of where he's going."

Staff researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.

Despite disputes with administration conservatives, Colin L. Powell has shown quiet persistence as secretary of state.Daily at 7:15 a.m., Secretary of State Powell holds a conference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, right, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "I have all the access I need," says Powell, "and my phone calls are answered."