[Op-Ed] 2012 Seoul Summit: Pivot to Global Nuclear Security

by Duyeon Kim

Published in the Korea Economic Institute’s “The Peninsula” on April 4, 2012.

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, Korea could have been a watershed moment for nuclear security. The 58 heads of state and world leaders were expected to implement nuclear security measures conceptualized by the Obama administration’s first Summit in Washington two years ago, and pivot toward a harmonized and coherent roadmap. After all, participating nations fulfilled over 90 percent of their voluntary summit commitments since the Washington Summit resulting in the reduction of vast amounts of highly enriched uranium and numerous reactor conversion measures.

The expectation, or hope, was that the Seoul Summit would build on these successes by reenergizing the international community on security issues, collecting new commitments to strengthen global nuclear security, implementing measures, and innovating global governance.

Unfortunately, domestic agendas and geopolitics stole the show, and what few accomplishments were achieved ended up more toothless than most analysts had hoped.

World leaders will and should take advantage of a major international assembly to discuss other pressing issues on the sidelines. But it was all too clear that 2012 is simply too crowded with domestic issues and election races for most leaders or media to concentrate on the task at hand.

North Korea grabbed the first headlines on the eve of the Summit. Then a Russian Foreign Ministry statement suggesting Moscow would not present new commitments to reduce its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium had a dispiriting effect on analysts, those with good-faith, and those with earnest intentions for the reduction and security of fissile materials. Headlines during the summit were taken by President Obama’s open-mic gaffe ensuring President Medvedev of his second-term political flexibility on missile defense and other issues.

It, of course, doesn’t help that nuclear security is a tough sell to a global public more focused on the economy and other kitchen-table issues than on the global stockpile of nuclear materials, a topic that’s too wonky for most people.

Seoul Communiqué

The format of the Seoul Communiqué intended to ensure all nuclear security issues are given the highest political attention by producing one combined document instead of the two (Communiqué and Work Plan) seen in 2010. The rationale was that a second, more technical document could be treated as an “Appendix” or side note with lesser importance. The intention was commendable. However, since a communiqué is a political statement at the top level, a combined document runs the risk of only agreeing on the lowest common denominators.

Alas, the Seoul Communiqué did just that, with weaker language used, such as “we encourage” instead of “we will” or “we call on” seen in the 2010 Summit documents. It also focused more on what was achieved in the past two years, though extremely important, and less on how to chart a deeper, coherent course of action for the future.

Still, Some Progress

Despite the lack of more detailed, future-oriented commitments in Summit documents, there were four noteworthy points of significant progress this year.

The most prominent achievement was tackling the nuclear safety-security interface — an initially controversial topic — for the first time in the Summit. By doing so, it sent an important reminder that the facilities that house nuclear materials should also be strengthened. Not only did world leaders recognize the commonalities of two distinct measures, but they advanced the idea by stating that the interface should be considered in all stages, from design to emergency response, in a synergistic manner so that strengthening one area does not compromise the other. Summit participants also aimed to seek the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) assistance in further enhancing the interface by, as a first step, organizing meetings on this matter. These are all part of an extremely significant first step, but the key is implementing measures that strengthen both nuclear safety and security until and beyond 2014. Fukushima provided the impetus to think in terms of safety-security, but the passing of time should not be allowed to dilute the sense of necessity and urgency. Safety-security measures should also be implemented as long as nuclear terrorism exists and as long as countries continue to use nuclear power.

The bulk of nuclear security measures rests on reducing the global stockpile of fissile materials — highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The summit set a target date, the end of 2013, to announce specific voluntary actions that countries will implement in order to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium in their civilian sectors. That’s a goal-oriented statement, and a noteworthy achievement considering the complexities of multilateral diplomatic negotiations. However, it is merely an encouragement rather than a unanimous commitment. Not to mention, some states may find it difficult to meet this deadline due to technical difficulties such as the time it takes to convert existing or newly-ordered reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel instead of highly-enriched uranium. It is also the first official acknowledgement that completely securing all vulnerable nuclear materials by December 31, 2013 — Obama’s four-year goalpost — is not within reach.

The third area of progress was in radiological security. Thousands of sites worldwide house radioactive materials. So it’s significant that world leaders have not only raised the importance of radiological security since the first summit in 2010, but they’ve set forth a more detailed vision for the safety and security of radioactive materials. For example, they’ve realized the need to establish national registers of high-activity radioactive sources and committed to work closely with the IAEA to cooperate on advanced technologies, and share best practices and management of radioactive sources. It’s not just nuclear materials that are game-changers. Radioactive materials can be used for terrorist means to make dirty bombs. Since radioactive materials are also widely used for benign purposes — industrial, medical, research, agricultural — their security is just as important to prevent and recover lost, stolen or orphaned sources.

Finally, a new contribution this year is the presentation of “gift baskets,” or joint pledges, from like-minded countries to strengthen nuclear security. For example, Belgium, France, Korea, and the United States announced a joint project to develop high-density low-enriched uranium fuel to replace highly enriched uranium fuels in high-performance research reactors. If the technology — developed by Korea — is effective, it could have a profound impact on minimizing highly enriched uranium usage globally.

Seoul Achievements

Korea displayed significant leadership as Summit Chair and succeeded in adding a Korean twist to the summit agenda while achieving its major goals. It surely impressed the skeptics who predicted Seoul would merely play host and organizer with Washington in the driver’s seat. Over the years, Korea has hosted major international summits, but this one is perhaps the first in which Seoul fully exerted its influence on substantive issues.

Seoul showcased its skills in multilateral diplomacy by deflating the highly controversial safety-security issue, overcoming stiff opposition from its closest ally to include safety, and garnering global consensus on a vision to strengthen nuclear safety-security. Korea also contributed a significant technology to replace highly-enriched uranium fuels in high performance research reactors, while showcasing its know-how in tracking radioactive materials. Seoul, together with allies and partners, was also able to send Pyongyang a message on the sidelines of the Summit. While it set out to regain public confidence in nuclear energy via the Summit, this will only be achieved through future actions that strengthen nuclear safety-security.

These notable outcomes came under some difficult circumstances. It puzzled many, even during the Summit, as to why Korea would and would want to take on a gathering that began as a U.S.-centric initiative. When Seoul agreed to receive the baton after the 2010 Summit, it was, knowingly or not, walking into tough waters. Unlike the U.S., which had engaged in nuclear security programs for decades, nuclear terrorism and “nuclear security” are foreign concepts for South Korea — it doesn’t have nuclear weapons or fissile materials, and security is always framed in the context of its number one threat, North Korea, which did not even make it on the Summit agenda, though for good reason. In other words, while the Nuclear Security Summit was established to deal with the U.S.’ greatest security threat — terrorists and non-state actors — South Korea’s greatest security threat has always been a state that produces nuclear material.

Thus, the natural lack of initial public interest and awareness was indeed a challenge. Another problem was the lack of public outreach on the issue ahead of the Summit, but this was true for most countries. The Summit also faced stiff competition with the entire country focusing on Korea’s April 11th general elections, nuclear security becoming a partisan issue, major media outlets going on strike for their own reasons, and every presidential initiative becoming tough sells during the final lame duck year.

While the Nuclear Security Summit process began as President Obama’s idea with an American focus, the scope has clearly expanded in the Seoul Summit to address the global realities of today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. This was a result of Seoul’s leadership. The next question is whether Seoul will continue to contribute to global nuclear security with the same drive and politicial will, exhibited in preparation for the 2012 Sumimt, after handing the chairmanship to the Netherlands.

Next Steps

The challenge for the Nuclear Security Summit process going forward is sustaining nuclear security initiatives while keeping states accountable to their summit commitments. It is crucial that world leaders reestablish the sense of urgency, existentiality, and awareness of the terrorism threat that the planet faces. Summit fatigue among heads of state could threaten global nuclear security; there are already questions as to whether the summit process needs to continue regularly or be absorbed by existing mechanisms, like the IAEA.

Attracting all heads of state to future Summits may become another challenge. For months, it was unclear whether the Seoul Summit would see 100 percent participation, but including a safety discussion with the security conversation in the aftermath of Fukushima helped considerably. This is why 2014 should leave open the door to again expand the scope to ensure full participation and interest.

The Nuclear Security Summit process places a burden of proof on all states to implement their nuclear security pledges as well as on the three chairs — Korea, the U.S. and the Netherlands — to continue to lead the process together. The Chairs should adopt, officially or unofficially, the troika system familiar in the G-20 when preparing for 2014.

International negotiations and diplomacy is indeed challenging when 53 different national interests are involved. There was — and will always be — push back from states on more ambitious commitments. But the Nuclear Security Summit needs to chart a deeper and wider course of action. Global nuclear security also needs to move beyond the voluntary, patchwork nature of the current effort toward the creation of a coherent global architecture and governance, starting with a minimum universal guideline for the security of nuclear materials and facilities. Without structure, the summit and nuclear security initiatives could be rendered impotent, and leaders will have even less incentive to pay attention to the goal. Universal standards can be devised and recommended without running into the complexities of sovereignty.

The 2014 Summit in the Netherlands must be drastically different and must not be a meeting that spends more time reviewing past accomplishments; it should not only address new or evolving security concerns that may arise over the next two years, but also set future goals. The Nuclear Security Summit may have begun as President Obama’s project, but Seoul 2012 has proven that nuclear security is a global responsibility with regional contexts. The Seoul Summit ultimately served as a pivot to a more global agenda.

The fundamental dilemma moving forward is narrowing the gap in threat perceptions among states and reconciling the debate on whether to include more nuclear issues or maintain a narrow focus on nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear terrorism is indeed a low-probability scenario, but the threat is real, and its consequences are unimaginably devastating. The human tendency is to wait until after a catastrophe to devise preventive measures. But when a nuclear or radiological incident occurs, a chance to even clean up may not be granted.

A version of this op-ed was published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on 30 March 2012.