Fifty-eight world leaders will be in Seoul, Korea Monday and Tuesday to agree on ways to prevent nuclear terrorism.
Since when have we ever seen a nuclear terrorist incident?
True, nuclear terrorism is an extremely low probability scenario but its consequences are unimaginable.
Still, the threat is certainly real because terrorist groups including al-Qaeda are believed to pursue weapons of mass destruction. And an international consensus exists on the threat. More sobering is that there’s enough nuclear materials in the world to make 100,000 additional nuclear bombs.
Who really cares except a select group of policy wonks?
By agreeing to chair this summit, the largest Seoul has ever hosted, Korea has entered tough waters. It would, and still, puzzle many: nuclear terrorism is still a foreign concept for Koreans, they don’t have nuclear weapons or fissile materials, and security is always framed in the context of their number one threat, North Korea, which does not even make it on the Summit agenda, though for good reason. So the lack of initial interest and awareness is natural. The other problem is the lack of public outreach and education on the issue ahead of the Summit and amid this increasingly globalized and interconnect world – but this is true for all countries, not just Korea…
For a Korean president who needs to leave behind his legacy this year, the Summit may just be it in the security realm. This means the Summit needs to be successful. But success will only be determined by substantive achievements rather than the pomp and circumstance of a lavish VIP event. The same goes for all heads of state.
The barometer of success for this summit would be in the national commitments, more so than the Seoul Communiqué political agreements. That is, progress achieved since the 2010 Summit, new “gift baskets” (joint pledges by like-minded countries), and new money put down by heads of state to fund nuclear security programs.
But nuclear security and the Summit are certainly tough sells to a Korean public that’s concerned about far more pressing issues – the economy, jobs, and domestic politics.
The Summit is a tough sell to the global public too for the same reasons, and a few heads of state are in their final year, which raises doubts about their effectiveness on any policy for that matter.
The Korean media wouldn’t be too interested either because the Summit comes just days before the April 11th parliamentary elections, major media outlets are on strike for other reasons, the opposition party and anti-nuclear activists are protesting the Summit (protests are always newsy), and North Korea is making headlines again. What’s more, some may not want to “help out” a “lame duck” president in his last term by extensively covering the Summit at a time when there are some bones to pick of their own with the Presidential Office on other matters – although the point really should be on covering global nuclear security that helps protect the world instead of on one president who’s about to exit office.
International media including Korean would be far more interested in quotes coming out of bilateral and multilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Summit – the “real news” of the day – since heads of state are conveniently gathered in one location. Pre-Summit stories are already dominated by North Korea’s planned April rocket-satellite launch and Iran.
As a former Diplomacy and Security journalist, I know too well that there’s nothing sexy about nuclear security – it’s just too wonky, it doesn’t feel real, and it’s not urgent enough. We all know the world’s hot spots, economy and politics trump all other issues.
But the fundamental objective of nuclear security is prevention and protection. Most often, if not always, we wait until after a catastrophe to devise preventive measures. But when a nuclear or radiological incident occurs, we just might not be granted a chance to even clean up afterwards.
Korea should care because it’s not entirely off the Taliban’s radar. We also recently heard that Osama bin Laden had apparently advised his advisers to “target [sic] American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea.”
As one of the world’s most wired and technologically savvy country, Koreans should care if they want to continue to enjoy the conveniences of IT since the country relies on nuclear power to provide almost 40% of their electricity.
All countries using or desiring nuclear power to meet their energy needs – or neighboring one of these countries – should care because those nuclear materials could be stolen or diverted, or become security and safety hazards if they’re not protected properly in the civilian sector. Despite Fukushima, many countries will continue to opt for nuclear power as an energy source, which means more nuclear parts and materials will be spread around the world, and one catastrophe transcends all territorial boundaries – so we should all care.
Just as locking our doors and wearing our seat belts are second nature to us, so should nuclear and radiological security and safety.