TOKYO -- Diplomacy toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula has clicked into deadlock again.
According to press reports, Choe Son Hui, North Korea's vice foreign minister, on Friday suggested Pyongyang could stop talking and resume missile testing. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will shortly announce a decision on the matter, she was quoted as saying.
If the pivot comes, it will be a clear signal that North Korea's refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons is genuine rather than a threat.
Yet negotiations toward denuclearizing the peninsula should continue. The approach, however, must change.
The more information that is revealed regarding the ruptured U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in late February, the more evident it becomes that Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear arsenal.
To prepare for the summit, Washington and Pyongyang kicked off a series of working-level talks on Feb. 6. American negotiators explained President Donald Trump's "big deal" in detail: The lifting of all sanctions if Kim agrees to abandon all of his nuclear weapons.
North Korean negotiators were noncommittal, iterating that they had no negotiating authority, according to U.S. government officials. Trump then concluded that Kim would accept his proposal and bet on receiving Kim's signature in Hanoi.
Expecting a deal, officials in charge of nuclear power at the U.S. Department of Energy flew to Hanoi along with their counterparts from the State Department, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
But Kim rejected the proposal, prompting Trump to decide that he should immediately fly back to Washington.
There were reports that Trump wanted to continue his talks with Kim but was persuaded to end them by Secretary of Stake Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Actually, Trump recognized that Kim had no intention of abandoning his nuclear arsenal, according to U.S. officials.
In other words, Kim had told his working-level negotiators not to reveal that he was unwilling to accept Trump's big deal and succeeded in luring the U.S. president to Hanoi. Kim possibly hoped that Trump would agree to remove most sanctions in exchange for the closure of certain nuclear facilities.
Recognizing Kim's real intention, Trump administration this month began clearly stating his basic stance: the pursuit of total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The "president has been very clear that [the] U.S. would not advocate for any removal of sanctions on North Korea until [the North] actually achieves final, fully verified denuclearization," U.S. senior government official stressed during a meeting with a small group of reporters in Tokyo on March 8.
Another senior State Department official has made a similar comment.
There are now three conceivable scenarios of how the North Korean crisis will develop.
Military tensions resume. North Korea restarts its missile tests, prompting the U.S. to revive its temporarily halted large-scale military drills with South Korea. The Korean Peninsula falls under the same pall as in 2017, a hair-trigger away from crisis.
The U.S. and North Korea reach a compromise. Pyongyang abandons certain missile and nuclear facilities while Washington partially removes sanctions. While such an accord would halt North Korea's nuclear development program to a certain extent, the North would maintain its ability to mass produce nuclear weapons.
The status quo is maintained. The next U.S. presidential election, now a year and a half away, takes place while negotiations remain stalled. In the meantime, North Korea continues importing oil despite the sanctions and advances its nuclear development program.
The first scenario seems unlikely, especially while Pyongyang refrains from criticizing Trump and the U.S. remains ready to negotiate.
As for the second scenario, it seems equally unlikely to play out as the U.S. has made it clear that it will not remove sanctions unless North Korea gives up its nuclear capabilities. The chances of Washington immediately coming off this stance are remote.
The third scenario, therefore, is the most probable. Trump will stay in office for at least two more years, six at the most. Kim, meanwhile, intends to remain as party chairman for decades. If he fails to get what he wants from Trump, the North Korean leader can wait out his negotiating foe.
Trump considers the current situation, in which North Korea is no longer testing missiles and nuclear explosives, to be an improvement over what he inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama, a U.S. government official said.
In the long run, the third scenario presents a security risk to the U.S., which would have to deal with a crisis if that hair-trigger is pulled.
To avoid this, the U.S. should set a deadline and make it clear to North Korea what the consequences would be for missing it. The deadline would be for North Korea to fully list all of its nuclear and missile facilities. If Pyongyang refuses to accept this demand, the sanctions should be tightened, and the U.S. and South Korea should resume their military exercises.
North Korea manages to smuggle in more petroleum than allowed under United Nations sanctions, according to a U.N. Security Council report.
Introducing additional U.N. sanctions would be difficult in the face of likely opposition from China and Russia. But if the U.S., Japan and other Asian countries crack down on smuggling, their enforcement would have the same impact as tougher sanctions.
U.S. lawmakers, then, should agree not to ease sanctions until North Korea completely abandons its nuclear arsenal.
Kim has to be made to realize that he cannot escape his sanctions predicament even if a Democrat wins the U.S. presidency in November 2020. This is essential if U.S.-North Korea negotiations are to be put back on track.