North Korea and a Nuclear Summit
Image Credit: White House

North Korea and a Nuclear Summit

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North Korea will certainly be in the room when the leaders of about 50 countries meet in Seoul next week for the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit. Only, it will be there as an elephant, whose presence is very much felt, even if it isn’t always talked about.

The Nuclear Security Summit is the brainchild of U.S. President Barack Obama, who during his presidency has maintained that the greatest threat to international security comes from the possibility of nuclear terrorism. It was in this context that he conceived of the summit as a forum for the leaderships of countries with nuclear materials to help them recognize the gravity of the problem, and to make voluntary commitments on securing nuclear materials and technology over the following four years.

Non-proliferation, and by extension the challenges posed by the nuclear programs/ambitions of Iran and North Korea, haven’t so far been on the agenda of the summit, even though the first one was held in Washington in 2010. But with the forthcoming summit taking place in Seoul, in such close proximity to Pyongyang, it was only to be expected that there would be some reference to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program.

Perhaps getting it out of the way early was an effort to preempt any dramatic moves by the Kim Jong-un regime, which has said that any criticism directed at the country’s nuclear program will be taken as no less than a “declaration of war.” Such a provocative statement could also have been aimed at deflecting the condemnation that has rained down on Pyongyang following its announcement that it will launch a satellite next month to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea.

Taken together, the statements suggest an increased assertiveness under North Korea’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, as he tries to settle in. Surprisingly, the comments also come at a time of generally easing tensions following the recent U.S. decision to provide “nutritional assistance” to North Korea in return for a pledge from Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear enrichment program and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit nuclear facilities.

So what exactly is North Korea trying to convey by making these strident announcements at this juncture? Is it a fit of pique over having been left out of the summit? Or is it in response to an assumption that a nuclear security summit taking place in the region would undoubtedly bring the spotlight to bear on the challenge posed by the North Korean nuclear program? Certainly, one of the reasons for South Korea wanting to host the summit was precisely to focus attention on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Of course, there may also be some symbolic significance to the North Korean announcements. The satellite launch is due between April 12 to 16, with April 15 marking the Kim Il-sung anniversary. In the country’s self-created mythology, 2012 is hailed as the target year for when the nation is to officially become a “strong and prosperous country.” As Kim Jong-un tries to settle into power, a technological feat in defiance of the international community might be seen as a way of consolidating domestic support.

Regardless of North Korean motivations for its current behavior, the real agenda of the summit is to create the highest level of awareness – as well as national-level commitment – over concerns pertaining to securing nuclear materials. To that extent, a comment at the summit on the legitimacy or otherwise of the North Korean nuclear program would indeed be out of place.  However, concern over the security of nuclear materials in North Korea, and the possibility of nuclear proliferation from there to other states or non-state actors, seems reasonable.  

There’s genuine concern in the international community about proliferation of nuclear materials and technology from countries like North Korea. Given this reality, it might have been a good idea to invite North Korea to participate at the summit. By excluding North Korea, the summit is only increasing its sense of isolation and alienation. In such a situation, is it surprising that a country for which a nuclear program is such an integral part of its identity should make statements such as these? Including North Korea at the summit might have reduced the country’s threat perceptions by bringing it into the international mainstream. Having the North Korean leader participate in the drafting of the recommendations and work plan might also have encouraged him to keep to any commitments made at the summit.

Sanctions and isolation have proved of little value in changing North Korea’s proliferation behavior. Participation at the summit might, then, have been a game changer, by encouraging engagement. The decision not to take this chance leaves the summit delegates with a difficult balance act – and a challenging week ahead.

Comments
4
Richard
March 25, 2012 at 09:00

I agree that some people do believe that having nukes are much better option than empty stomach,but my point is really US as the sole super power,should try to understand the feeling of an upcoming super power.
US should not under estimate China’s ability at the peril of its own down fall.

JohnX
March 25, 2012 at 06:03

In regards to Richards comments.

Some may consider that North Koreas nukes are a way of preventing irrelevancy. They protect North Koreas identity from being superceded by China as much as they protect it from US actions.

So long as they have nukes, larger nations must give consideration to them, and even China knows that you must feed your guard dog lest it bite you. Thus from NKs position, its a non starter any discussion that gives up thier nukes.

The real issue would be showing NKs new leadership that giving up NKs existence as a country and uniting it with SK would gain the NK leadership more than constantly struggling along as an independent nation.

Plus, we dont know how many nukes the NK have, so if the North joined the South, the question is how many would be destroyed under an international agreement and how many would quietly disappear in the new ‘Korean Republics’ store rooms.

All for the day that they are needed. Korea knows its history just as well it knows its future aims.

Richard
March 25, 2012 at 02:59

To give due respect to China as the pending next Super power,US should leave the problem of a nuclear North Korea and a mad Kim regime to China since North Korea is on Chinese border,nearer than Cuba to US,I believe that despite the often cited motherhood statement that China and North Korea are family,China would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea.

Expert
March 24, 2012 at 22:19

North Korea was invited to the summit. They declined for the obvious reason.

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