SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Republican Sen. John McCain on Tuesday accused former President Clinton, the husband of his potential 2008 White House rival, of failing to act in the 1990s to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
"I would remind Senator (Hillary) Clinton and other Democrats critical of the Bush administration's policies that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated was a failure," McCain said at a news conference after a campaign appearance for Republican Senate candidate Mike Bouchard.
"The Koreans received millions and millions in energy assistance. They've diverted millions of dollars of food assistance to their military," he said.
Democrats have argued President Clinton presented his successor with a framework for dealing with North Korea and the Republican fumbled the opportunity. In October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang to explore a missile deal with Chairman Kim Jong Il. There was even talk of a visit by President Clinton.
Reports this week suggesting North Korea tested a nuclear device prompted a number of Democrats to criticize Bush, arguing that he focused on Iraq, a country without weapons of mass destruction, while ignoring legitimate threats from Pyongyang.
McCain's criticism elicited a strong response from Democratic Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 presidential nominee and a potential 2008 candidate.
"He must be trying to burnish his credentials for the nomination process," said Kerry, who labeled McCain's comments "flat politics and incorrect."
"The truth is the Clinton administration knew full well they didn't have a perfect agreement. But at least they were talking. At least we had inspectors going in and we knew where the (nuclear fuel) rods were. This way, we don't know where the rods are, the rods are gone. There are no inspectors. Ask any American which way is better," Kerry said.
The Massachusetts senator made the remarks in Nevada during a campaign appearance with Elizabeth Carter, wife of Democratic Senate candidate Jack Carter.
In U.S.-North Korea relations, the initial breakthrough occurred in October 1994 when U.S. negotiators persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear program, with onsite monitoring by U.N. inspectors. In exchange, the United States, with input from South Korea and Japan, promised major steps to ease North Korea's acute energy shortage.
These commitments were inherited by the Bush administration, which made clear almost from the outset that it believed the Clinton policy ignored key elements of North Korea's activities, especially the threat posed by the hundreds of thousands of troops on permanent duty along the Demilitarized Zone with South Korea.
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McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he backed tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea in response to the reported test. The measures, he said, should include a military embargo, financial and trade sanctions and the right to inspect all cargo in and out of North Korea.
The Arizona senator and New York Sen. Clinton are considered their party's front-runners for 2008.
McCain also called on China to "step up to the plate" and vote for sanctions and rejected calls for one-on-one talks between the United States and North Korea.
"The worst thing we could do is to accede to North Korea's demand for bilateral talks," McCain said. "When has rewarding North Korea's bad behavior ever gotten us anything more than worse behavior?"
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