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The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, cfr.org
March 25, 2012

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Some fifty nations are in Seoul for the second round of the Nuclear Security Summit, aimed at keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of would-be terrorists. The first round, organized by President Obama, was held in Washington in April 2010. Michael A. Levi, an expert on nuclear security, says while there may not be a lot of new commitments made at this summit, "its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance." Levi says despite the fact that Iran and North Korea often dominate the discussion on nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism remains a danger. "Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack," he says. "One of the values of a series of summits like this is that it stops us from forgetting about this issue just because we happen to be more focused on the Iranian program or the North Korean program right now."

Is this an important summit?

Absolutely. The Nuclear Security Summit series [a third meeting will be held in 2014 in the Netherlands] was initiated by President Obama as part of a broad effort to focus international attention on preventing nuclear terrorism, particularly by boosting security for nuclear materials. International summits can often deliver less than some people might expect, but one of the key ways they can help encourage action is by holding leaders accountable. By having a series of summits rather than just a one-off two years ago in Washington, the president is able to keep people focused on delivering on their commitments. You might not see a lot of new commitments at this summit, but its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance.

To a layman, the nuclear security issues out there are the North Korean nuclear program and whether Iran's going to have nuclear weapons. Neither of these two countries is at this conference.

And neither those two countries will be explicitly on the agenda. It's important to think about two things when you look at the connection between this summit and those challenges. The first is that we can too get infatuated with the nuclear challenge of the day and forget that there are other ones around. Nuclear terrorism remains a danger. Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack. One of the values of a series of summits like this is that it stops us from forgetting about this issue just because we happen to be more focused on the Iranian program or the North Korean program right now.

Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear-terrorist attack.

The second element here is that by improving security for nuclear weapons and materials, we make it less likely that we will face future North Koreas and future Irans. One way that countries aspiring to nuclear weapons could potentially gain access to weapons is through poor security. So by improving security around the world, we keep the problem at least a bit under control. It's hard enough to deal with North Korea and Iran; we wouldn't want to be dealing with twice as many problems at the same time.

After 9/11, there was great concern about al-Qaeda getting nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden wanted nuclear weapons. Has the killing of Osama Bin Laden last year made al-Qaeda less of a threat now?

Al-Qaeda is less of a threat not just because of the death of Osama Bin Laden, but frankly because of what the United States did a decade ago to break up the centralized al-Qaeda system in Afghanistan. It's also important to put this in context. Some of the warnings about nuclear terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were overdone; a lot of the claims that we would face a fifty-fifty chance of an attack were rhetorical flourishes at best, and there are a lot of reasons to believe that pulling off a nuclear attack is more difficult and less attractive than a lot of people thought. But that doesn't mean that it isn't a real risk, and because the consequences are potentially so high, it's important that we continue to focus on it, both by securing materials and weapons as the summit is focused on, but also by pursuing an effective counterterrorism strategy, which the killing of Osama bin Laden was a part of. If there was no nuclear material, then there can't be nuclear terrorism, but if there aren't effective and well-supported terrorist groups, nuclear terrorism becomes a lot less likely as well.

Some countries are often cited as dangerous as far as nuclear materials being handed over to the wrong parties, such as Pakistan. Are you worried about Pakistan?

Absolutely. Pakistan presents at least two kinds of dangers when it comes to nuclear terrorism. The first is that Pakistani nuclear security appears to be based largely on secrecy, which means that it could potentially have difficulty dealing with threats from insiders rather than the threats from the outsiders that secrecy and guns, gates, and guards tends to help you confront. The second risk with Pakistan is that instability in the country could broadly undermine the nuclear security system that's in place. Now I don't want to scare people into thinking that Pakistan is about to lose nuclear weapons tomorrow. I think there's substantial confidence now that it has the system under control, but given the risks in the country, it's hard to ever be comfortable. The prime minister of Pakistan, Yousef Raza Gilani, will be at the summit this week, and one of the goals is to get countries like his and others to identify good strategies and encourage them to follow through.

You might not see a lot of new commitments at this summit but its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance.

Even though the North Koreans are not at the meeting, inevitably the topic of North Korea is going to come up, at least outside the conference, because of the country's announcement that it plans to launch a space satellite in the middle of April. What do you think will happen on the North Korean issue?

I expect leaders to discuss the North Korean issues on the sidelines quite intensively. I don't expect it be a part of the main summit. Frankly, if the summit communiquť were to spill beyond security for nuclear weapons and materials and into specific countries' nuclear programs, there would be enormous pressure from many of the participants to also say something, not only about North Korea and Iran, but also the Israeli nuclear program. Since the Israelis will be there and won't sign on to that, I don't see anyone going down that road. But there will be a lot of discussion. There is a lot of concern about what's happening in North Korea. Pyongyang talks about a space satellite test, but that's essentially indistinguishable from a long-range missile test. And there is good reason to believe that anything that can strain North Korea's ability to test long-range missiles will also strain its ability to develop those missiles to the point that they actually work and can threaten targets well away from their borders.

North Korea signed an agreement with the United States in February in which it would get food assistance in return for halting its nuclear program and stopping the long-range missile tests. Why would they go ahead now with the satellite launch?

The North Koreans are still testing the world. There is probably some incoherence internally. It's striking if you look at the numbers--the cost of this missile program and test. It's well in excess of what it costs to feed the North Korean people for a year. So while the world is being forced to save North Koreans from starvation, its government is pursuing these programs that will just bring further isolation. There's clearly a lack of certainty in Pyongyang both about where it wants to go and about what it can get away with. And sometimes when leaders aren't sure what they can get away with, they try different things and they feel out the international community's response. I can't imagine that someone woke up and said, "We must celebrate Kim Il-sung's birthday; what shall we do?" and someone else said, "Well, it would be fitting to launch a space vehicle." I suspect that there's a broader, deeper, strategic motivation.

What about discussions between the United States and Russia at this meeting?

The United States and Russia are closer to being on the same page than other large participants. Remember, the United States and Russia have been working together to cooperate on nuclear security, since before the fall of the Soviet Union and far more intensively in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union [1992]--that's twenty years of experience that this summit series is partly intended to export to other countries. So Russia is a strategic ally in a lot of ways for the United States in this effort, because it can show other countries how to take effective action. This isn't to say that there's not more that Russia needs to do and can do. It isn't to say that there isn't more that the United States needs to do and can do. But both of them have much better experience than others and can actually be strong partners in this effort.

Is there any threat from the former Soviet republics like Belarus and Ukraine?

There's still nuclear material in many of the former Soviet republics, and there are ongoing efforts to make sure the security for those materials is as strong as possible. That's been a concern since the fall of the former Soviet Union, and it's not something that has been fully dealt with yet.

I have often heard about black marketers.

Right. We can get a bit of sense of some of this from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (PDF), a comprehensive rating of different countries on their effectiveness in nuclear security for weapon-usable materials. They looked at thirty-two different countries--the United States, for instance, ranked thirteenth; Ukraine ranked fifteenth, so pretty close; Belarus, sixteenth, Kazakhstan was twenty-second, Uzbekistan was twenty-sixth. So the former Soviet republics are at a range of different positions. Some of the eastern European countries performed extremely well on this assessment. Hungary registered as the second best in the world; the Czech Republic registered as number three in the world. So there's quite a range. Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea come last.

Who is first?

Australia. And this is important--Australia has done well on nuclear security not only because it has better protection for its materials, but because it's actually consolidated and downsized the set of materials that it needs to protect. The easiest way to improve security for nuclear weapons and materials is to get rid of them.

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