from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Nuclear Security Summit: Five Tests of Success in Seoul

March 26, 2012

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

As more than fifty-three world leaders convene in Seoul, South Korea for the second global Nuclear Security Summit, North Korea has—predictably—attempted to steal the show by threatening to launch a “satellite” (aka long-range missile) next month. Pyongyang’s latest calculated provocation, though, should not be permitted to overshadow the significance and seriousness of the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit and its potential impact to bolster the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The substantive agenda in Seoul will include high-level talks on cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protect nuclear materials and related facilities, and prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear materials. Looking beyond the Hermit Kingdom’s need for attention, the Internationalist highlights five central issues to monitor during the summit:

  1.  Keeping Promises: During the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, delegates pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material by 2014. This year’s summit, at the halfway mark, provides a bellwether as to whether countries will keep their word. Independent estimates have generally been positive. Experts claim that 60 percent  to 80 percent (PDF) of national commitments have been reached. While the threat of a single theft or diversion of fissile material to nonstate actors remains potentially catastrophic, such progress is important. As the range of sources for illicit nuclear materials decreases, so too does the ease with which nonstate actors can attain nuclear components and build a weapon. In Seoul, nations must fight to maintain momentum and continue to make inroads where nuclear material remains vulnerable.
  2. Securing Nuclear “Fiscal Material:” As major economies continue to recover from the global financial crisis, the Nuclear Security Summit must generate not only political will to secure nuclear material but also adequate financing to sustain global nonproliferation efforts. Current trend lines are troubling. The Obama administration has actually requested a slight decrease in funding for two important U.S. nonproliferation programs, the Second Line of Defense Initiative and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, for the 2013 fiscal year. European Union members face similarly tough budget choices. Given fiscal austerity, summit participants must ensure that cuts to nuclear security and broader nonproliferation programs are made with an eye toward efficiency—rather than reckless budget slashing.
  3. Expanding the Agenda—and the Club: The Seoul summit will be a major multilateral gathering, with more than fifty world leaders and the heads of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, and European Union, and INTERPOL in attendance. But stemming nuclear proliferation will require collaboration beyond the formal summit agenda. China is a case in point. On the positive side, the United States and China in December 2011 jointly launched a radiation detection system in Shanghai, one of the world’s busiest ports. But China still remains outside the U.S.-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral arrangement designed to interdict shipments of WMD and related technology by land, sea, or air. Washington needs to get China on board.The summit also needs to cast a wider net, to reach other vulnerable states. A major priority is to ensure universal compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1977, which extended the mandate of the UN 1540 Committee. Created in April 2004, that body seeks to develop and enforce new rules to prevent WMD proliferation. Yet eight years later, many developing states have failed to report their progress and national-level reforms to the committee. Finally, the United States itself should ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which had only seventy-seven parties as of March 2012.
  4.  Focusing on Nuclear Security, not Nuclear Safety: The expressed focus of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit is bolstering the security of nuclear materials, to keep them out of the hands of rogue states, terrorists, and other nonstate actors. At the same time, the searing experience of last year’s meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima reactor ensures that nuclear safety—and not simply nuclear security—will be on the minds of the delegations. Some outside groups have criticized the summit hosts for their relative inattention to the safety challenges raised by civilian nuclear energy—particularly at a time of growing global interest in acquiring this capability. The danger of focusing on both challenges, however, is that neither is likely to get the attention it needs from policymakers in Seoul. The logical response might be to convene a parallel Nuclear Safety summit to address this challenge.
  5. Leverage the Summit to Engage Problematic Nuclear Powers: The United States should also take advantage of a more inclusive forum to exert pressure on nuclear powers that are reluctant to engage directly with the United States on the issue. In particular, given the fraught bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan, U.S. blandishments can only go so far. As I noted in my book, Weak Links, Pakistan possesses a combustible combination of dysfunctional governance, widespread corruption­­—including at high levels of government, and the presence of global jihadists. Given the parlous state of Pakistani-U.S. relations, multilateral fora have the highest potential to be productive.

Visit our Global Governance Monitor: Nuclear Nonproliferation for a broader discussion of nuclear security, nuclear safety, and nuclear nonproliferation issues. The entire package has been updated to reflect recent shifts in international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and sensitive technology as well as increasing concerns that Iran is moving closer to developing a nuclear weapon. The updated Monitor highlights how, despite the conclusion of the New START Treaty between the United States and Russia in 2011 as well as the announcement of a U.S.-North Korean compromise agreement in February 2012, the world remains at risk for the most serious effects of unchecked nuclear proliferation.