When it comes to the situation in Iraq, you can agree with President Bush's policy, as I do, or you can disagree, but everyone would have to concede it has been clear and consistent. Unfortunately, that has not been the case with the administration's policy on North Korea, which has been unclear, inconsistent and counterproductively confrontational.

The more we learn about that policy, in fact, the more it seems the president and his team have failed to look strategically beyond each step they were taking, thus acting more like an emotional minor player than the steady great power we are. In doing so, they have helped turn a difficult challenge on the Korean peninsula into a dangerous crisis.

Right now North Korea is rapidly accelerating its production of plutonium to fuel nuclear weapons, creating a direct threat to our nearly 40,000 troops there as well as destabilizing the entire Pacific Rim. In short, the Bush administration has bullied its way to the opposite result from what it presumably wanted -- a non-nuclear North Korea.

Indeed, one of our most vital security interests is to keep North Korea from developing into a nuclear power. This was the impetus behind the Agreed Framework, negotiated in 1994 by the Clinton administration in close partnership with our Asian allies, which closed off the most likely and dangerous road to a nuclear North Korea: the development of weapons-grade plutonium. And in fact, the North Koreans kept that central part of the 1994 agreement. The framework, in turn, opened the doors to improved relations between the Koreas and even between the North and the United States.

Perhaps motivated by its unhealthy aversion to all things related to the previous administration, the Bush team took office determined not to follow this policy of engagement and negotiation. Instead, it immediately followed a course of unilateral confrontation, threatening to suspend key parts of the Agreed Framework, branding North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and declaring its intention to preempt threats by military action.

This approach was consistent with neither the advice of our allies in the region nor with the positions of key leaders of the administration's own foreign policy team. So we learned during South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's visit to Washington in March 2001, when President Bush saidthe United States would not talk with the North Koreans, a stance that undercut both the South Korean leader and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who earlier had articulated a policy of negotiation and engagement.

The source of the troubles on the Korean peninsula is the totalitarian Kim Jong Il administration, not the Bush administration. But the way Washington has handled the latest lawless acts by Pyongyang has turned these troubles into a serious crisis.

After the revelations in October that North Korea had irresponsibly and provocatively violated some provisions of the 1994 accord by pursuing a nuclear program based on uranium enrichment (as distinguished from plutonium), the administration unfortunately accelerated its confrontational movement. Once again it did not listen to our allies in the region and experts here at home who argued that Kim Jong Il appeared open to asking for negotiations. Instead, the Bush administration pressured our allies, against their wishes, to join with us in withholding the fuel oil shipments that we promised the North Koreans in return for the shutting down of the Yongbyon plutonium-producing plant.

Did anyone in the administration really believe that Kim's reaction to that act would be to roll over? He did what North Korea experts guessed he would do -- reopened the Yongbyon facility, kicked out the international inspectors and started to produce enough plutonium to fuel nuclear weapons. He already has the means -- ballistic missiles -- to deliver those weapons in the Pacific region, and he could ship such weapons to eager buyers around the world -- including terrorists. Now, as a result, we find ourselves in a game of geopolitical chicken against an unstable regime that has a large and formidable army only a few miles from Seoul, and that threatens the lives of millions of people and the security of our nation.

Fortunately, during the past two weeks the administration has rediscovered the virtues of diplomacy. But President Bush still refuses to negotiate with the North Koreans until they close down the Yongbyon plant. This is where we are not acting like the superpower that we are, the one our allies in the region want and need us to be. We lose no options (including military action) and have much to gain by sitting down with North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea and negotiating an agreement for North Korea to become a non-nuclear power (with full international inspections to guarantee that promise) in return for political recognition and regional economic investment.

Harry Truman, the first post-World War II commander in chief to deal with a crisis on the Korean peninsula, warned Congress at the beginning of the Cold War that "if we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world -- and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation."

The nature of the threats we face today has changed from those of a half-century ago, but the importance of American leadership and the indispensability of a clear and consistent voice on foreign policy have not. We cannot afford to falter in either.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Connecticut.