Kim Jong Il, Great Divider

The old days when Republicans and Democrats allowed differences over US foreign policy to stop at the water's edge are long gone. Washington's money-driven political pugilism has seen to that.

Even allies know they can "play the Hill" in the absence of a bipartisan stance on foreign issues. But now this tactic of dividing and conquering a superpower has been mastered even by the reclusive Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader.

Mr. Kim must know Democrats have a stake in the Clinton approach of the 1990s to buy him off with things like safe power plants as a way to temporarily close his nuclear-bomb factories. President Clinton didn't want yet another foreign issue to disrupt his domestic agenda, and neither do his political heirs.

So as long as Democrats such as Senate minority leader Tom Daschle demand direct US talks with North Korea, Kim will continue his threats, such as sending fighter jets to harass a US surveillance plane, hoping President Bush will see him as a "crisis."

And with Democrats now turning North Korea into a presidential campaign issue, US regional allies such as South Korea and Japan, as well as China, may be hesitant to follow Bush's lead to put pressure on Kim. Why take a risk if a Democrat may be in the White House within two years?

The Clinton approach failed. North Korea violated a 1994 pact and secretly kept making bomb-grade uranium. It got caught by the Bush administration, admitted it, and has returned to the bluster and threats that it used to win a Clinton payoff.

To trust North Korea once again to mothball its nuclear plants would take even more money, and require the impossible task of foreign inspectors combing that closed police state for bomb factories. Once burned, the US should be twice shy.

The task of containing North Korea - especially if it tries to export nuclear weapons to a terrorist-friendly nations - is no longer just a US problem. Democrats must join the Bush effort for a multilateral political solution. Those Democrats who want the United Nations to decide how to deal with Iraq should also want the UN to take the lead on North Korea.

But so far neither the UN nor the nations around North Korea are doing much. They're watching this domestic US dispute. No wonder then, with North Korea speeding up its nuclear production, Bush hasn't ruled out a preemptive strike.

Perhaps, first, Bush needs direct talks with Capitol Hill Democrats.

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