If John McCain is looking to distance himself from President Bush in voters’ minds, there is no better place to do so than on the Bush administration’s recent decision to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

A frontal attack on Bush’s multilateral accommodation with Kim Jong Il would constitute a principled stand on national security, nuclear non-proliferation, and human rights. Moreover, by simply demonstrating that North Korea has given no indication of its readiness to declare, disable, and dismantle its nuclear programs in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, McCain would be taking a hard-nosed national security position requiring none of the military talk that tends to turn away Democrats and independents. Finally, it is a position that follows naturally from John McCain’s previous statements on the matter.

In February, I asked Senator McCain if he believed that six-party-talks with North Korea should include a human rights dimension. He immediately responded in the affirmative and followed up with a detailed (but by no means comprehensive) description of the dismal state of human rights under Kim Jong Il. He labeled North Korea "the world’s largest functioning gulag," and expressed disgust over the fact that, due to institutionalized malnutrition, North Koreans are now on average 3 to 4 inches shorter than their South Koreans counterparts.

McCain’s sympathy for North Koreans was particularly welcome, as it represented a contrast from the State Department’s then-recent move to sideline special envoy for human rights in North Korea Jay Lefkowitz for daring to suggest that the Kim regime’s human rights abuses were worth keeping in mind. Aside from the moral failing of Condoleeza Rice’s see-no-evil tack, the decision to let North Korea slide on such a critically obvious violation was clearly the first step onto a slippery slope of accommodation with Pyongyang.

It was heartening to hear, in the face of this, that a potential President was still interested in holding Kim Jong Il’s feet to the fire. In May, Senator McCain made use of the "gulag" reference again, this time in an opinion piece written with Senator Joseph Lieberman for the Wall Street Journal Asia. The senators wrote:

[W]e must never squander the trust of our allies and the respect for our highest office by promising that the president will embark on an open-ended, unconditional personal negotiation with a dictator responsible for running an international criminal enterprise, a covert nuclear weapons program and a massive system of gulags.

Four months have passed since the State Department decided to ignore North Korean human rights violations, and the Bush administration has followed the path of indifference to its logical conclusion. Last week came the announcement that North Korea would be removed from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The human rights question is nowhere in sight. And unresolved issues–secret uranium enrichment and nuclear technology transfer to Syria–are being ignored. So: where does John McCain stand on the latest development?

According to Philadelphia’s Bulletin, McCain was "encouraged," but said:

Many questions remain about North Korea’s programs, including the disposition of plutonium at Yongbyon, the number and status of nuclear weapons, the nature of the highly-enriched uranium program, and the extent of proliferation activities in countries like Syria. As we review this declaration and attempt to verify North Korean claims, we must keep diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to meet all of its obligations under the Six Party agreement, including denuclearization.

Encouraged? And why no mention of gulags this time around? The Associated Press quotes McCain’s reaction to the North Korea deal at a campaign stop Ohio:

My overall impression is that we should be very cautious, 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.

McCain should stop hedging: his greatest challenge in trying to put space between himself and George Bush is that on the issue where Bush finds the least public sympathy-the Iraq War–McCain is in agreement with the President. Challenging the administration’s North Korea capitulation would allow the senator to demonstrate that he is not George W. Bush 2.0, no flip-flop required. It might also attract the admiration of the vast Bush-hating portion of the electorate who (rightly or wrongly) feel that the President’s foreign policy high-mindedness is merely posturing to cover self-interest. McCain, the much-vaunted "maverick," needs to start living up to that description.

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