Last month was a busy one for nuclear affairs on the abidingly unstable Korean peninsula, giving observers of international affairs and global security several reasons to stop and take notice. Let’s recap:
Late last month, President Obama attended the second Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Seoul, South Korea. The Seoul NSS came two years after the inaugural summit, held in Washington, which brought 50 countries together with the ambitious agenda of securing nuclear bomb material worldwide from terrorist acquisition. The 2010 meeting yielded a number of outcomes intended to build a global culture of nuclear security and featured national commitments to protect or eliminate bomb material.
This year, 58 heads of state and other global leaders gathered in Seoul to evaluate their progress and stake out new ground in the control of nuclear materials. Among the variety of technical outcomes for the 2012 summit, three points stand out: the focus on timelines and legal norms for the control of nuclear materials, the attempt to synch summit efforts with the pursuit of nuclear energy, and the start of discussions about radiological attack (a conventional bomb contaminated with radioactive material).
Such technical measures tend to excite only nuclear security specialists, but the stakes in their successful execution—the prevention of a nuclear terrorist attack—could not be higher. So far, so good.
Then, on the day following the conclusion of the NSS, the White House reported that it has halted plans to deliver 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea (DPRK) later this year. The food assistance for the impoverished North Korean people had been announced only a month ago, alongside a commitment by the DRPK to refrain from testing nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles and to cease developing material for nuclear weapons. However, after the DPRK’s declared plans to launch a satellite next month, which is indistinguishable from a missile test, the U.S. stated that lacked confidence in North Korea maintaining their commitments regarding distribution of the proposed food aid.
This reversal did not shock observers of nuclear politics, for whom North Korea’s unreliability is proverbial, and meets the low expectations that greeted the deal’s initial announcement. But it is disheartening even so, since it marks the fact that the regime of the new North Korean leader, the young Kim Jung-Un, maintains a continuity of behavior with that of his late father.
The collapse of the food-aid deal also draws attention to the fact that the Seoul summit, while extraordinarily important in its advance of technical security measures, did little to resolve the tension around North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programs have created two of the world’s most potentially explosive situations.
What, then, are the takeaways from a week of mixed nuclear news?
First, the importance of patience—both with the perennially pokey process of nuclear security and with complex situations in a political climate that frequently demands easy answers. Nuclear politics are almost always slow, but this is good, because with weapons this destructive, deliberation and due diligence are necessary aspects of any process. Moreover, there are no quick and easy solutions. Both the forward-looking thinking on display at the Seoul summit, and the ongoing frustration waltz with North Korea, demonstrate the need for active, flexible strategy.
The second takeaway, however, is in some ways the inverse of the first. Though the execution of nuclear security is unavoidably challenging, our thinking need not be convoluted. The rules are actually quite simple: These weapons are too terrible ever to be used again.
This is a norm we can apply. It gives us a firm orientation toward potential nuclear rogues; as President Obama declared in Seoul, “For the global response to Iran and North Korea’s intransigence, a new international norm is emerging: Treaties are binding; rules will be enforced; and violations will have consequences. We refuse to consign ourselves to a future where more and more regimes possess the world’s most deadly weapons.” The resolve is good, but we should be equally resolved to oppose the drumbeats advocating war with Iran, which most senior American and Israeli military and intelligence leaders agree would be ineffective in stopping any nuclear bomb program and would cause catastrophic regional blowback.
Posted on the Capital Commentary website.