Sen. Hillary Clinton squared off against President Bush last week over how to deal with North Korea, throwing a political punch that's likely to be repeated again and again into the 2008 presidential campaign.
The junior senator of New York claimed Mr. Bush hasn't "been all that successful" in preventing North Korea's "continued attempts to obtain nuclear weapons." In fact, the world now finds itself in "grave consequences" due to Bush's "failure," said the former first lady of another president who tried (and failed) to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
Her criticism is anything but a domestic dispute between Democrats and Republicans. North Korean officials are probably cupping their hands to their ears to find out which side will prevail, and may aim their actions at influencing this Beltway debate.
Many Democrats such as Senator Clinton see a more immediate - perhaps imminent - threat in North Korea's nuclear program and long-range missiles than Bush does. That's quite a role reversal from the pre-Iraq war debate. It may be they simply want to position themselves to the right on the type of security issues that had hurt them in the 2004 elections.
What they specifically want are direct talks with the North's truculent leader, Kim Jong Il, rather than continuing the six-nation talks that are going nowhere. Mrs. Clinton made that request last week in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The North's threat level does appear to be rising. Pyongyang declared in February that it had nuclear weapons. And the US has told foreign diplomats the North appears to be preparing an underground test, perhaps next month. South Korea claims the North Korean issue has reached a "critical point."
Could direct talks quickly "solve" the crisis? The US could easily give the North what it wants - a security guarantee, money, and humanitarian aid - if the North can verifiably dismantle its nuclear program. Mr. Kim's ruthless regime might then be able to stay in power, but without nukes, without an economic collapse, and without opening his hermit nation to global influences.
But Bush doesn't buy into the direct approach. He saw how President Clinton's bilateral agreements failed due to the North's perfidy. So he's looped in China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia as witnesses and enforcers to any deal that might come out of the multiparty talks.
Bush's less urgent attitude toward the North relies to a large degree on China, which prefers the current "nuclear ambiguity" but would come down hard on the North if it had a bomb, knowing the US might attack. Chinese spies provide a canary-in-the-coal-mine alert for Bush. So far they're telling South Korea and others that North Korea is far from having a bomb.
Bush, in other words, wants simply to manage the problem for now, while some Democrats want to solve it immediately.
Those opposing views represent two very different readings on North Korea's intentions.
It's not clear to Pyongyang watchers if dictator Kim simply wants to continue to make dubious nuclear threats as a way to keep getting money from South Korea and others to help keep his regime in power, or whether he's really prepared to drop the nuclear program, open up his society to foreign investment, and risk domestic pressures that might bring his demise. His credibility with North Koreans could fall fast if they clearly saw how deprived their country is compared to others.
If Kim is sincere in wanting his country to be nonnuclear and open to the world - and yet confident that he can stay in power - then the time is ripe to cut a deal. The six-party talks are a way to probe Kim about his intentions and test his vulnerability.
But since the last talks in September, North Korea has refused to attend. Instead, angry words continue to pass between the US and the North. The White House calls Kim "not a good person" while the North calls Bush a "philistine" and a "hooligan."
Until Kim is confident enough to make a decision to open his nation, the outside world will have to remain vigilant, probing, and patient until he's really ready to deal.