Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain reacted cautiously Thursday after President Bush announced easing economic sanctions against North Korea, a world troublespot one of them will inherit after the next presidential inauguration in January.
Yet if history is any guide, McCain would take a hard line against the regime in Pyongyang, in part reflecting his age and military background. Obama, meanwhile, would take a more flexible course, reflective of his legal training and belief that dialogue should underpin U.S. diplomacy.
And in practical terms, both approaches may lead to the same place regardless of who emerges as president: an incremental "actions for actions" approach that was the hallmark of Democrat Bill Clinton's policy and has more recently been adopted by the Republican Bush administration.
Under that policy, Bush lifted trade sanctions against North Korea and moved to remove it from the U.S. terrorism blacklist after the Communist leadership handed over a long-awaited accounting of its nuclear work to Chinese officials. That act fulfilled a key step in the denuclearization process.
"As long as the strategy looks like it's working in the sense of limiting North Korea's (nuclear) capacity, the next president is going to be so focused on dealing with problems in the Middle East that no one is going to want to pick a fight unnecessarily in northeast Asia," said Gary Samore, a former North Korea arms negotiator who now serves as vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Candidates urge caution
In reacting to the news, McCain said the six-party talks between China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and North Korea had obviously yielded some results.
"My overall impression is that we should be very cautions, as I've said a number of times in the past, but I'll be very interested in hearing all the details of the administration's new position, evolving position on this issue," the Arizona senator said as he campaigned in Ohio.
Obama struck a similar chord.
"In the words of Ronald Reagan, we have to trust but verify," the Illinois senator told the FOX Business Network. "But this issue of nuclear nonproliferation is critical. We've let it slip away for too long. Now is the time for us to get back together with other countries around the world and make sure we do not have the kind of proliferation that can fall into the hands of terrorists."
At age 71, shaped by his own experience fighting in Vietnam and being held as a prisoner of war, McCain has favored a tough approach with the North Korean regime. Earlier this week, during a town-hall meeting in Fresno, Calif., he waxed poetic about the "Forgotten War" between the United States and Korean Communists.
It resulted in a divided peninsula but, in McCain's view, played a pivotal role in stopping the Cold War spread of communism.
McCain has also earned accolades from some conservatives for maintaining an even harder line than Bush.
"We must use the leverage available from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test to ensure the full and complete declaration, disablement and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, in a verifiable manner, which we agreed to with the other members of the six-party talks. We must reinvigorate the trilateral coordination process with Japan and South Korea," McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., wrote last month in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal Asia.
Obama, 46, has used the language of his Harvard Law School education as he has called the six-party talks "ad hoc" and said he favored bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
The senator has spoken broadly about boosting diplomatic engagement with other countries, even those that have been hostile to the United States like North Korea. He has criticized Bush for limiting diplomatic relations with such nations, often invoking President John F. Kennedy's maxim, "We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate."
Last summer, during a Democratic primary debate, Obama answered "I would" when asked if he would meet without preconditions the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. His chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, quickly jumped on the comment, calling it "irresponsible and, frankly, naive."
Echoing Clinton, McCain has since said Obama's position shows he lack the experience to serve as commander in chief.
Since clinching the nomination, Obama has sought to clarify his view.
"Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking," the senator said earlier this month.
On his campaign Web site, Obama also pledges to "forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements such as the six-party talks on North Korea."