LOS ANGELES — Remember how the senior George Bush, when he was president, admitted to having trouble with “the vision thing.” Has that deficiency been passed on to his son?

Last week, a Korean leader, who obviously offers the world and his region diplomatic vision of a high order, met an American leader, who may just as obviously offer a lot less. Recall, as we have said before, that not many of President George W. Bush’s top-tier advisers are gung-ho sunshine boys or girls (and his Asia-policy team of experts is far from being in place). That is, they do not really like South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s so-called Sunshine Policy of aggressive engagement toward Stalinist North Korea.

At the same time, Bush the Younger, in his first official summit with a state leader from Asia and trying to show good manners toward an elder, was not trying to be disrespectful to Kim. “There’s no question in my mind that the president of the Republic of Korea is a realist,” said Bush, trying hard to be diplomatic in front of a roomful of reporters, with the 76-year-old president standing awkwardly at his side. “He knows exactly with whom we’re dealing. He’s under no illusions.” That’s what Bush said, but not how he acted.

In the meeting with Kim beforehand, Bush proclaimed that his administration was suspending bilateral talks, carried on for years, with North Korea. So what the new American president did was to cut out Kim’s heart.

No matter that the Korean president is something much more than a conventional hack democratic politician. Despite difficulties in his own country, this legendary former political prisoner and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner is widely admired around the world for his visionary efforts to end the half-century state of war between the failed communist state in the North and the successful capitalist Asian tiger in the South.

But the vision that the 54-year-old former governor from Texas, whose last (and only) visit to Asia was 25 years ago, wished to convey to the world was that you can’t trust the communists to honor agreements, especially not North Korean communists.

To be sure, Bush is hardly wrong to want solid evidence of the North’s putative transformation from a paranoid garrison state to a trustworthy nation; and Kim hardly opposes transparency in any agreement reached. Indeed, there are a lot of things North Korea could do to make the world — and not just Bush — want to like and trust it more. For starters, it could pull back artillery units that threaten Seoul and allow outsiders more internal oversight of food-distribution efforts by the West.

But why not test the North by trying to negotiate agreements with it, rather than assuming that agreements not yet negotiated will automatically be broken?

It’s not as if this largely self-reliant, hermetic socialist state, so isolated from everyone else, has a long track record of international deal-making or deal-breaking one way or the other. Besides, the whole point of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s historic summit last year with Kim in Seoul was to say: We want to change.

Why not test that hypothesis rather than just dismiss it out of hand?

For North Korea, its leaders must understand that Bush’s disinclination to resume negotiations, for the time being at least, is probably more a domestic call than a foreign-policy one. The president is under pressure from conservatives to toughen U.S. foreign policy toward the few remaining communist regimes.

Congressional Republican heavyweights such as Christopher Cox, pandering to conservatives from California’s Orange County, a suburb south of Los Angeles, have even been urging Bush to slow down the 1994 nuclear-reactor deal by which the North, in essence, would exchange its nuclear-weapons capability for domestic nuclear-energy power from the West. Remember it was the ambitious Cox who led the headline-making probe that spotlighted spying by China and said precious little about spying by France or Israel or Saudi Arabia or anyone else.

The North Koreans must understand that the kinder, gentler Bill Clinton is president no more, and if they want more outside help they will have to develop a decent relationship with Bush, for the next four years at least. And they should warily note that one of the new president’s few visions is of a huge defensive missile system justified precisely by the fear of rogue states (such as North Korea) firing off an occasional missile, as Pyongyang did over Japan in 1998.

This big U.S. missile idea is a high-profile, high-interest project for Bush. “The ice has begun to melt in the last remaining Cold War on Earth,” Kim said hopefully last week. But not, it seemed, in Washington.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.