But how do you get there?
Bolton says the key is getting China on board by convincing it that having a westernized and united Korea on its border does not pose it any real threat.
“It means working with China and convincing the younger generation of China leaders that this ugly piece of baggage that North Korea represents is something that they don’t need as a buffer zone between them and us and South Korea,” he said, admitting that this is “no easy task.”
China is in many ways North Korea’s lifeline, supplying it with roughly 90 percent of its energy. While Bolton says that presidents since Bill Clinton have “ineffectively” tried to convince China to get tough with North Korea and its nuclear program, he doesn’t see the effort as hopeless if done right.
“The China policy is schizophrenic right now,” he said.
“They say they don’t want a nuclear North Korea because it will lead to instability in northeast Asia that impairs Chinese economic development. And that’s right. … But then they don’t do what they need to do, what they uniquely could do, to stop North Korea from being a nuclear weapons state, because they are afraid they will collapse the regime, and that that will lead to South Korea and the United States going in — as we have plans to do and have had for decades — and leading to the reunification of the peninsula.”
“What we need to convince China is that they should not fear reunification, and in fact if they want stability in northeast Asia, the only long term path to stability is reunification,” he added.
While China’s cooperation is important, Eberstadt believes there are steps the U.S. can take now to minimize the North Korean threat that don’t require China’s cooperation.
“We can reduce the North Korean threat to begin with by redoubling our alliance efforts with Japan and South Korea, by increasing missile defense [regionally and internationally], by increasing economic penalties on the regime, and by doing what we should be doing anyhow with respect to a human rights campaign for the worst human rights violator in the universe,” he said.
“We probably should also be encouraging our South Korean allies to facilitate a real underground railway out of North Korea. North Koreans are by constitutional right automatically South Korean citizens. We saw how that happened in Germany in 1989.”
As for China, Eberstadt said, “If Chinese politicians are so blind to think that this ticking time bomb that they share a border with isn’t going to have just a huge blowback on them, let them wait a little while.”
Yates said that the U.S. should also cut the North Korean regime off from the financial system, like it did in 2005.
“North Korea’s access to international financial markets should be cut off [as was done in 2005] and not restored until complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear capabilities,” he said.
But all four agreed that American clarity on what it faces with North Korea is critical.
“Focusing on nuclear deterrence and the coordination of nuclear deterrence with our allies Korea and Japan will at least stop the extortion or the false premise that somehow we can convince North Korea to not obtain nuclear weapons,” Blumenthal said.
“So there would be a dose of reality that I think would be injected into the process and that at least would have a better chance of protecting our vital interests in not being attacked and not having our allies attacked.”