Even in that kind of undesirable scenario of North Korea having an offensive goal, the United States will lose nothing much by offering North Korea a détente. At least, through political engagement, the United States will be able to discern North Korea’s true intention, which will help identify the next steps to take in close coordination with South Korea. Most of all, the United States will be able to confirm whether North Korea truly wants the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South in return for its denuclearization. North Korea has been publicly demanding it, but it is quite likely that North Korea may not want it out of concern that Chinese influence would fill the vacuum on the Korean Peninsula. In the past two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2018, the North Korean leaders indicated flexibility on this matter. Through political engagement and candid dialogues, the possibility of an optimal solution satisfying the demands of three major stakeholders, the United States, South Korea, and North Korea could be explored.
After all, a thorough review of the conventional approach and a cool-headed calculation of the U.S. interest from a broader geostrategic perspective requires a bold new approach toward North Korea. In this way, the United States will be able to move a step closer to curing the root cause of the North Korea problem and strengthening its strategic position in the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
Dr. Yoon Young-kwan was recently the inaugural Senior Visiting Scholar with the Korea Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea from 2003 to 2004. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Seoul National University. The author acknowledges the generous support of the Korea Foundation.