Except for South Korea, North Korea is not a country that is a threat to invade its neighbors. It is not even clear that it wants to, or would be able to, invade South Korea. That was Kim Il-sung’s’s aim. This is not 1950. North Korea is an impoverished country. South Korea is the world’s 11th largest economy. The Kim regime is notoriously brutal and does want to remain in power at all costs.
China’s freeze/freeze option is a reasonable next step: North Korea freezes its nuclear development (subject to rigorous verification). The U.S. stops joint military exercises with the South. Then we talk. We should be talking now. This is nuts not to be talking even informally. Apparently, we barely have a skeleton diplomatic team in place to direct this.
A bold proposal would be: If North Korea dismantles its nuclear program, the U.S. would sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War and accept an internationally recognized boundary between the two Koreas. As North Korea gradually dismantles its nuclear weapons, the U.S. would gradually withdraw from the peninsula. (U.S. has 15 bases in Korea.) This does not mean ending the U.S. alliance with South Korea or removing the U.S. nuclear umbrella from its allies in East Asia. North Korea would be free to keep its alliances. Any reunification would only happen under peaceful terms.
If North Korea cannot accept what it has always demanded – the U.S. leaving the peninsula – then military deterrence and even more severe economic sanctions will likely continue to be the mainstay of our relations with that country. But the world should present North Korea with a credible opportunity to choose to be integrated into the worldwide family of nations before we default to that future on the Korean peninsula.