WASHINGTON -- For years, the Clinton administration tried to negotiate directly with North Korea to avert the development of nuclear weaponry on the volatile peninsula.
For the past three years, the Bush administration has tried to negotiate through an alliance of Asian nations, with President Bush refusing to negotiate directly with the government of Kim Jong Il since talks broke down over North Korea's enrichment of nuclear fuel.
Now, with the apparent testing of an underground nuclear device in North Korea, it has become clear that neither tactic worked.
Critics contend that the United States is paying the price for not paying closer attention to North Korea's nuclear ambitions over three decades, with the challenge of dissuading a hostile government from developing a nuclear weapons program becoming the far more difficult task of containing a nuclear arsenal.
"It suggests that we're in for a rough go here," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a Defense Department specialist in nuclear nonproliferation in President George H.W. Bush's administration.
"This isn't the worst. This is the beginning of the worst," Sokolski said. "The world is watching how we are going to deal with North Korea."
The current Bush administration says North Korea's apparent show of nuclear force will not alter its refusal to negotiate directly and that it will rely instead on an alliance of Asian nations for negotiations that have been stalled for a year, while counting on the United Nations Security Council to take action in response to what President Bush has called a "provocative" act.
Since 2003, the United States has hoped that the six-party talks with North Korea - involving China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States - would avert North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, which Bush has termed "unacceptable."
The United States has particularly counted on China's perceived ability to influence the North Koreans. Talks broke off last fall after North Korea refused to return to the table. In their last communique before negotiations stalled, all parties reasserted a goal of a "verifiable de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Now, with the reported detonation of an underground nuclear device, critics say North Korea has passed the point of negotiations.
Worse yet for the United States and its allies, critics say, North Korea's flouting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it abandoned years ago, is likely to embolden other nations, such as Iran, that are interested in pursuing nuclear technology and possibly nuclear weapons.
And the Bush administration finds itself in the position of trying to persuade the United Nations to punish North Korea for its apparent nuclear test after never punishing North Korea for developing nuclear weapons.
The president said yesterday that diplomacy still holds the solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, as with Iran.
U.N. action sought
"The United States remains committed to diplomacy," Bush said, while calling for quick U.N. action against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's government.
Yet, after initially trying to negotiate one-on-one with Pyongyang - as previous administrations had done - Bush says the six-party talks are more effective than talking to the North Koreans directly.
"The administration has felt that this was the proper approach," said Fred Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "Other approaches of previous administrations were not working as well, so we decided to have North Korea's neighbors buy into this process. In fact, those who are most immediately threatened by North Korea's behavior are their neighbors, so it was important to have the international buy-in.
"I know there will be a lot of second-guessing. The pundits are already out there."
The pundits aren't the only critics. With the November congressional elections near, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said yesterday that the apparent test is a clear sign of the administration's "failed North Korea policy."
`State of denial'
"The Bush administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea and has too often tried to downplay the issue or change the subject," Reid said. "Now, the White House must rally the international community and must directly speak with the North Koreans so they understand we will not continue to stand on the sidelines."
Although the United States refuses to negotiate directly with North Korea, the Bush administration says it warned Kim's government directly, through a diplomatic back path known as "the New York channel," not to conduct its threatened nuclear test. Similar protests were conveyed through New York after North Korea's testing of ballistic missiles in early July.
But the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean relations runs far deeper than the current administration's insistence on averting direct negotiations.