Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Korea's Nuclear Summit

The world's most pressing nuclear problem – North Korea – probably won't be on the agenda

President Lee Myung-bak's unexpected May 9 announcement that that the second Nuclear Security Summit would be held in Seoul in March 2012 appears to be major shift in the South Korean government's thinking.

Although the announcement was accompanied with an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to attend after Kim promised to abandon his long-debated nuclear weapons development program, those familiar with North Korea's political culture know Pyongyang's leadership is probably uninterested in Lee's suggestion.

Regardless, the meeting, in which more than 50 heads of state are supposed to take part, has gripped South Korea's attention, essentially because of the still-unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster in the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 10.

The summit was officially initiated by US President Barack Obama in 2010 as the world's multilateral forum for strengthening nuclear security. While it has not accomplished much yet, all of the member states agree to the importance of a nuclear-free world even in times of deep political and economic division.

The summit, known by its initials as NSS, operates under consensus, and its member states' priorities are in accordance with their own national interests. Some want deep discussions on spent fuel and nuclear waste, others want to forgo the production of fissile material such as plutonium for weapon purposes, and still others insist that nuclear security should be also dealt seriously, in particular since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Some demand the strong and immediate implementation of each nation's commitment on nuclear security. Others want a more binding rule to prevent illegal nuclear trafficking through non-state actors or terrorists.

Nuclear security and safety trigger sharply polarized views instead of smooth compromise and the give-and-take of good-faith discussions. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, has put forward a five-point strategy to improve nuclear safety standards and a top-to-bottom review of current safety standards both at the national and international levels. He also seeks to strengthen the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency on nuclear safety, putting a sharper focus on the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety; undertaking a new cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy, factoring in the costs of disaster preparedness and prevention as well as cleanup when things go wrong; building a stronger connection between nuclear safety and nuclear security.

Unfortunately, however, Ban's proposals will probably not be implemented soon if ever, even though the Fukushima incidents galvanized world leaders and the global public to recognize the urgency of nuclear safety. Therefore, the NSS has a substantial responsibility to deliver a tangible outcome in Seoul.

Needless to say, the NSS's future is in the hands of its member states. But the nuclear security and safety agenda in the context of non-proliferation is too important to let the annual summit fade away. Most recently, there was the first ‘Korea-US Experts Dialogue' meeting in Seoul to discuss ways to implement the NSS's Communiqué and Work Plan. Experts from the previous and next host country, respectively, of the global forum shared practical interests and information over global nuclear security and safety.

The participants, who included dozens of nuclear-related professors and think-tank wonks, were unanimous in underscoring that a concrete action plan is the first priority at the level of each state as well as at the global level. A few participants suggested that additional agendas such as North Korea's nuclear threat should be ruled out. However, they do not appear to take into account the changes that have taken place on the Korean peninsula over the last 30 years, the period of North Korea's clandestine nuclear development.

I urge the South Korean government to continue to stress the extended agenda, even though the negotiated outcome might be the same, so as to emphasize awareness of the real danger of the communist regime's nuclear ambitions.

In fact, big ideas without solid action plans are a waste of time. A specific blueprint for a nuclear-free world should be created. The NSS's member states must recognize that the summit's future depends on whether each member is able to carry out what has been confirmed in the Communiqué and the Work Plan. While promoting South Korea's own agenda as the next host country, some American participants apparently intended to seek to enhance the agenda by deepening the alliance with South Korea in nuclear security for protecting nuclear materials and nuclear-related facilities.

After all, Seoul and Washington will reach a mutually agreed agenda over time. For example, it is imperative that North Korea's nuclear weapons development should be seriously dealt in one way or another, although a ‘regional item' on the agenda could arguably be inappropriate at the global conference. It is clear that North Korea's participation, although unlikely, would surely affect the scope and direction of the agenda. If so, a range of security issues relating to North Korea must be on the wider agenda.

The NSS's agenda will likely offer the prospect of concrete and productive discussions on nuclear security and safety issues. Prior agreement on the scope or outcome must be of utmost importance for another successful summit in 2012.

South Korea has emerged as one of the responsible stakeholders in these globally critical issues, especially in view of the recent momentum stemming from the nuclear disaster in Japan. With the focus so intently on advancing the goal of a nuclear-free world, South Korea should play a larger role in global security in order to mark the momentum of the world without nuclear weapons.

Nuclear security and nuclear safety are, it's said, two different chapters of the same story. It is time to stop talking about the differences of the twin agenda in terms of global security. Instead, it's urgent to keep in mind that unless all the member states faithfully comply with the Work Plan, the NSS will be a child's baseball game in which nobody is keeping score.

By Lee Byong-Chul Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul

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