"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.
The criticism took a presidential campaign turn on Tuesday as McCain, the Arizona senator considered the Republican front-runner for the party nod, assailed Clinton's husband and mentioned her by name. The New York senator is considered her party's leading candidate in 2008.
Sen. Clinton's spokesman dismissed McCain's criticism and argued that it was time for a new policy from the president.
"Now is not the time to play politics of the most dangerous kind — with our policy on North Korea," Philippe Reines, spokesman for Sen. Clinton, said in a statement. "History is clear that nothing the Bush administration has done has stopped the North Koreans from openly testing a nuclear weapon and presenting a new danger to the region of the world."
Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush "has allowed the 'axis of evil' to spin out of control. Our Iraq policy is a failure. Iran is going nuclear and North Korea is testing nuclear weapons," the statement said.
A spokesman for President Clinton, Ben Yarrow, said in a statement that it was "unfortunate that anyone would attempt to rewrite history to score political points at a time when we need to address this serious threat."
"For eight years during the Clinton administration, there was no new plutonium production, no nuclear weapons tests and therefore no additional nuclear weapons developed on President Clinton's watch," said Yarrow, who added that Colin Powell, Bush's secretary of State, endorsed Clinton's policy toward North Korea in 2001.
McCain's criticism also 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.
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.
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?"
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, speaking during a debate Tuesday with his Republican rival for the Senate, accused the Bush administration of walking away from relationships the Clinton administration had developed.
"When the North Korean ambassador came to the United States, he had to go to New Mexico to meet Bill Richardson, who had been at the United Nations, because he didn't have anyone else to talk to," Kennedy said. "The United States is the heavy in this. The United States has to engage. This administration has to have direct contact with North Korea."