Nuclear Security Summit: The North Korea-Iran Conundrum

23 May, 2013    ·   3945

Somya Chhabra rationalises whether the summit’s selectivity vis-à-vis its agenda signals its failure

Somya Chhabra
Somya Chhabra
Research Intern

With less than a year left for the third Nuclear Security Summit, to be held in The Hague in 2014, there is a need to revisit and re-examine its raison d’etre. The first summit was initiated by President Obama in Washington D.C. in 2010 to deliberate upon issues of nuclear security and safety, as well as to impart awareness and information about the very serious and concrete threat of nuclear terrorism. It also aims at reducing the amount of nuclear material and radioactive sources through the improvement of international cooperation. Much like environmental threats, the effects of a nuclear catastrophe are not constrained by sovereign borders and therefore, raise issues of national interest in many non-nuclear states as well, giving the summit a broad platform.

The summit’s agenda has not been designed to tackle the more immediate nuclear highlights - North Korea and Iran. Does this selectivity signal its failure?

The Necessity of a Narrow Agenda
The exclusive focus of the Nuclear Security Summit is a conscious effort. Though the international community has serious concerns about the illegitimate nuclear activities of North Korea and Iran, these issues were discussed only on the side-lines of the Summit, and this trend is likely to continue in 2014. While threats from North Korea and Iran have been a priority for many countries, nuclear security and terrorism is more discreet and often overlooked. North Korea’s third nuclear test, and Iran’s resolve to enrich more Uranium and its non-compliance with international non-proliferation norms resembles a catastrophic danger. On the other hand, since there has been no dramatic showcase of nuclear terrorist activity yet, many nuclear professionals, governments, and publics are not convinced of the intensity of this creeping threat.

However, it is only by strengthening nuclear security and safety, and by closing gaps in the system can the global non-proliferation regime effectively deter the threat of a North Korean or Iranian attack. The Summit is one of its kind by virtue of its pre-emptive, long-term focus on how to secure the thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and about 1,600 tons of weapon-grade Uranium and 500 tons of Plutonium. The issues of North Korea and Iran have also been excluded from the agenda as it might limit the deliberations to a small number of countries such as U.S., China, Russia, Israel, and South Korea. Moreover, clubbing the North Korean and Iranian threat together would be an anomaly as the objective with respect to the former is the abandonment of its nuclear weapons program; while with the latter, the objective is to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus, it might be rewarding to deal with these issues via bilateral talks on the margins of the Summit.

The Seoul Summit of 2012 can and indeed should be applauded for its accomplishments. For one, the majority of the 53 participating countries pledged to work toward strengthening nuclear security, especially through converting Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). Here, the example of Ukraine, which has completed the removal of HEU from its territory, shines through. The Seoul Communique has also focused on the ratification of the 2005 amendment to the convention on physical protection of nuclear material, by participating nations.

As a step ahead of the Washington Summit of 2010, the Seoul Summit also looked into the matter of trafficking of fissile material and the creation of “dirty bombs”, and is committed to countering nuclear smuggling through collaborations in border and export controls. Finally, post the ill-fated accident at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, nuclear safety has been a crucial point of intersection between countries. In fact, its greatest achievement lies in the coming together of a motley group of nations over the contentious issue of nuclear security.

Elephant in the Room?
Despite the fact that neither North Korea nor Iran have attended the Summits, their issues have dominated the global response. Therefore, along with the over-arching focus on nuclear security, the point needs to be driven home to these countries wishing to upset the apple cart, that the world at large will not accept their brinkmanship. It is also possible that by ignoring such malevolent threats and by appearing squeamish about dealing with them, the summit itself runs the risk of losing its relevance and credibility. The summit could become an arena where the world at large could conceptualise a plan of action for its future dealings with North Korea and Iran. Finally, due to the lack of a head-on approach to deal with these countries, the Summit might embolden other potentially “rogue” nations to defy the norms of non-proliferation.

Since its original objectives are already being worked upon, the summit can perhaps broaden its agenda. This is not to say that the coming Summit in 2014 must overshadow its primary task of improving nuclear security assurances and strengthening the international legal regime. However, it must strive to reinvigorate its focus on the much diluted issue of global nuclear disarmament. Addressing the belligerent threats posed by North Korea and Iran could be a start.