U.S. policy toward North Korea is a case study of what can happen when an administration is sharply divided over an issue: Rhetoric becomes disconnected from actions; feuding Cabinet departments produce a muddy strategy that confuses friends and foes alike.

Korea is the crisis that sneaked up on the Bush administration just when it wanted to focus the world's attention on Iraq. The administration, in fact, doesn't even want to call North Korea's push for nuclear weapons a "crisis." But it surely is one, and it illustrates some deeper tensions between the State and Defense departments that have been plaguing this administration.

Korea, above all, demonstrates the danger of moralizing foreign policy. Once you have declared a regime "evil" -- as Bush famously did in his condemnation of North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an "axis of evil" -- how then do you negotiate with it? Yet that is just what the Bush administration is now being pushed to do, because of the political and military realities of the Korean peninsula.

As Bush insiders tell the tale, the administration battled internally for its first year and a half over what to do about North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell initially signaled that there would be little change from the Clinton administration's policy of engagement and its 1994 "Agreed Framework" for defusing the nuclear issue. But that continuity approach quickly collapsed. Hawks at the Pentagon, at the National Security Council and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office -- suspicious of anything associated with Bill Clinton and dubious about engagement with Pyongyang -- vetoed dialogue until the North made new concessions.

For months the administration couldn't agree whether it favored diplomacy or confrontation. Finally, in mid-2002, a decision was made to engage North Korea by sending the first high-level Bush emissary, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly. The idea initially was to present the North with a "bold initiative," not unlike the breakthrough Clinton had hoped to seal with a presidential trip to Pyongyang just before he left office.

But around the time Bush finally decided to send his emissary, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that the North had been lying about its compliance with the framework and was secretly continuing its efforts to build nuclear weapons. The Kelly mission in October 2002 thus become one of confrontation. To the administration's surprise, the North Koreans admitted to Kelly that his evidence about their secret nuclear program was correct. In that admission, Pyongyang was either extending a bargaining chip or demonstrating its implacable determination to acquire nuclear weapons, depending on which faction of the administration you support.

The hawks' line is simple: The United States cannot reward Pyongyang's blatant cheating by making concessions. And North Korea may seem a test case of the Bush national security strategy, issued last September, which urged preemptive first strikes against rogue states that sought to acquire nuclear weapons.

So where's the preemptive attack? It appears to have been preempted, as rhetoric met realpolitik.

The unhappy fact is that the United States doesn't have good military options against Pyongyang. There are too many North Korean troops and artillery pieces just across the DMZ from Seoul, and the cost of any U.S. attack would be devastating losses for South Korea. Since North Korea is thought to have at least two nuclear bombs already, it could even launch a nuclear retaliation.

That's the fundamental difference between North Korea and Iraq, if you were wondering. For all the administration's rhetoric about Saddam Hussein, Baghdad is relatively weak militarily. That makes it a far easier target than, and thus preferable to, Pyongyang.

Further confounding administration hard-liners is the fact that they badly misread public opinion in South Korea. When Bush took office, administration hawks argued that President Kim Dae Jung had only thin support for his "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North. But "Sunshine" turns out to be very popular in the South, and South Koreans resent what they increasingly see as American meddling. They want one Korea, and they don't seem particularly upset at the idea that it would have (the North's) nuclear weapons.

These policy complications explain why the Bush administration's rhetoric has been so gentle since the crisis began. The doves seem to have won their case that Washington doesn't have a good alternative to diplomacy. Bush may still talk about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as someone he "loathes," who "starves his people." But meanwhile, Powell continues to insist that "nobody's going to attack North Korea" and that a diplomatic solution will be found. No wonder people are confused.

Bush's ability to tolerate conflicting views from State and Defense has been one of his strengths, but the Korea crisis shows the danger of going in two directions at once. The choice in dealing with North Korea is the same as it was the day Bush took office: diplomacy or confrontation. The administration delayed so long in framing its policy that both approaches are now far more difficult than they needed to be.

It's time to choose. On Korea, Bush can't be a moralist and a pragmatist at the same time.