SEOUL, South Korea — Forgetting the fact that nuclear weapons are the most destructive technology in the history of our species, one only need take a look at the guest list for the Seoul Nuclear Summit next week to realize that the topic of nuclear arms is a pretty big deal. Attendees of the 2-day conference include over 40 heads of state from over 60 countries, including American president, Barack Obama.
This level of high profile leaders coming together as part of a globally expansive and personally committed group is critical if North Korea, whose border lay only fifty miles north of the global gathering, is ever to be walked back from their nukes.
That North Korea has emerged as the world’s most dangerous nuclear weapons state, regularly threatening to reduce Seoul to a ‘sea of fire,’ underlines the importance of the issue for South Korea and the good fortune of making their case here at ground zero.
Looking ahead to the summit, here are a few things to keep an eye on over the course of the meetings.
Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can think of no president since Ronald Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose Mutually Assured Destruction as it had underpinned US policy since Flexible Response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile reduction in history with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty –a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget.
But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. These are words never heard from a sitting American president. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush.
To be honest, the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although the US can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like South Korea, rely on America's extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for the summit.
North Korea, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that North Korea is, inevitably, the big focus of these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in South Korea is to make that pretty clear. North Korea is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that.) Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, North Korea has no declaratory policy on use –such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’ policy. So, in effect, we have no idea what North Korea’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved).
Beyond that, North Korea is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. With its expanding missile technology it is a delivery system proliferator to boot. The North Koreans are so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move North Korea toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get North Korea back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at North Korea.
Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and less so, Pakistan, are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia at the summit. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because the US so desperately needs Pakistan’s cooperation in the war on terror.
Instead, the geographic focus, after North Korea, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes.
As Obama noted at American-Israeli Political Action Committee gathering earlier this month, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.
Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – the belief that a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional nuclear states like Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan. In fact, it’s fairly amazing there’s been no nuclear use since the Cold War ended, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now.
Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at North Korea) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the non-proliferation treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this, in Korea too.
Ironically, nuclear power is quite safe, but the public has taken an especially stark fear to it (probably because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the radioactive fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.
Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be an important global conference in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ the uber-cheese vid below if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROK government would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand.
And do we really need the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts and its relentless advertising blitz?
Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore, complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness at such an utterly important event.