Cautiously silent during the election-season debate on Iraq, congressional Democrats are trying to regain their voices on foreign affairs by speaking out against President Bush's policies on North Korea.

Democrats have accused the administration of being inconsistent on whether to negotiate with North Korea; of playing down the dangers of the communist-led country's nuclear programs; of not working closely enough with South Korea and of using rhetoric that may have contributed to the crisis.

Bush "started off using bellicose language, not thinking what the consequences of that might be," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said in an interview this week. "Then when they responded to the bellicose language, we said we wouldn't negotiate. Then we said we wouldn't negotiate, but we would talk, leading to the question: `What's the difference?"'

Lawmakers of the opposite party traditionally tread carefully in foreign policy and defense, not wanting to be seen as undermining the nation's commander in chief.

That was particularly true last year, with Iraq. Few Democrats wanted to be seen challenging a popular president in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, especially in the months before an election in which control of both houses of Congress was at stake.

Democratic efforts were largely limited to urging Bush to seek a congressional resolution and international support through the United Nations, both of which the administration ultimately did. The top Senate and House Democratic leaders supported the Iraqi resolution, as did most Senate Democrats. Most House Democrats opposed it.

As the administration has moved toward war, the Democratic silence has continued.

"When you've got troops in place to mount a military attack, there's a hesitancy to appear more partisan and to be undercutting the administration's position," said Christopher Deering, a George Washington University political scientist.

There's no such problem with North Korea, where a military conflict does not appear imminent, particularly as the United States prepares for war against Iraq. North Korea has one of the world's largest armies and is believed to possess two plutonium bombs, giving it the potential to inflict massive damage on South Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops are based.

North Korea was a political issue long before the latest tensions. Republicans criticized the Clinton administration for the 1994 agreement in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel aid and moves toward normalizing relations.

When the United States uncovered evidence last year that North Korea had a secret uranium enrichment program, Republicans said it demonstrated the agreement's weaknesses. They cited in particular the lack of procedures to verify that North Korea wasn't resuming nuclear programs.

Democrats faulted North Korea for violating the agreement, but some also said Pyongyang's paranoia about the United States was fed by Bush's hostile rhetoric, including "axis of evil" linking of North Korea with Iraq and Iran.

With North Korea apparently moving rapidly to resume its original nuclear program, the Bush administration said it wanted a diplomatic solution but wouldn't negotiate. Democrats said negotiations were essential and demanded that the administration work closer with South Korea, which has advocated dialogue with North Korea.

While Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted problems with North Korea weren't a crisis, some Democrats said its threat to U.S. interests was bigger than Iraq's.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic presidential hopeful, called Bush's policies on North Korea a failure.

After the administration raised the possibility of new aid to North Korea if it disarms, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said "this flip-flopping and this change in position from one day to the next sends a very conflicting and confusing message, not only to the North Koreans but to the international community."

James Lindsay, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the Democratic criticism has been mostly to show Bush's inconsistencies, "not really to make a case for a Democratic alternative for handling the problem of terrorists, tyrants and technology."

Alton Frye of the Council on Foreign Relations called the Democratic criticism "a legitimate expression of valid concerns, with a strong political overlay."

He added, however, that North Korean policy "is not an issue on which one should gloat. This is a grave international matter. It is very complex it requires agile diplomacy" and deserves more than "the domestic game of `gotcha."'