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Back to Nuclear Drawing Board

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Back to Nuclear Drawing Board

There were few surprises at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. Japan, meanwhile, seems distracted.

After much political posturing in the lead up to the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, the two-day conference this week – attended by more than 50 countries and international organizations – ended with a joint communiqué that reaffirmed the need to ensure “a safer world for all.” Not surprisingly, critics have pointed out that such a communique – long on commitments but short on specifics – amounted to little substantive progress. Coupled with the announcement by the United States this week that it was suspending the food aid deal to North Korea, it’s clear we are back to the drawing board.  

To be fair, this nuclear stalemate isn’t unexpected. Indeed, only the most optimistic – or naïve – would have expected anything of consequence to materialize from this meet. Short of North Korea doing an about-face, the status quo was always likely to persist as the key players continue to disagree on some fundamental issues.

Here’s where the main countries now stand:

The United States: Notwithstanding his strongly worded statements against nuclear terrorism, President Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul can be best described as symbolic. The U.S. president’s visit broke little new ground in terms of real policy debate. His trip to the demilitarized zone – listed as the most dangerous place in the world – provided plenty of photo opportunities and quotes aplenty, but otherwise, little substantive in terms of moving the nuclear issue forward.

The much-anticipated bilateral discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao also failed to move Beijing, at least in public. While both countries agreed to “coordinate their responses” in the event of a Pyongyang rocket launch, there was little elaboration over how this coordination could be achieved. Ironically, the biggest impact Obama had was almost entirely unrelated to the nuclear agenda, but regarding the U.S. missile defense system vis-à-vis Russia. The now infamous private conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev picked up by microphones has now become an issue of domestic contention. Whether the conversation was a calculated risk or a slip, we can only speculate. But one thing is for sure: the United States’ interests haven’t been helped by the gaffe.

China: Beijing’s presence at the summit was also largely symbolic, and revealed little about the Chinese leadership’s intentions. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Hu said that China “does not hope to see a reversal of the hard-won momentum of relaxation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.” Once again, this is restating the obvious: no country wants conflict to take place on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike Washington, however, Beijing seems to be in no rush to alter the status quo – especially in a year of political transition and in the face of increasing domestic challenges. Moving forward, what Beijing chooses – or chooses not – to do in its relationship with Pyongyang will assume increased significance, particularly if China perceives the cost of aiding its nuclear neighbor to finally outweigh the benefits of doing so.    

South Korea: The organizing of the summit probably counts as one of the South’s key achievements this year. Despite security concerns over Pyongyang’s saber-rattling, the event passed without any incident. Yet, this is only a start insofar as Seoul’s interests are concerned. More pressing concerns remain, chief of which is the possible outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. To what extent Seoul would be willing retaliate if it comes under any kind of attack is of crucial importance. The fact that the South has historically eschewed a nuclear option in guarding against the North in favor of a U.S. extended deterrence umbrella suggests that its choices will be closely aligned with those favored by Washington. Nevertheless, as the Cheonan sinking in 2010 demonstrated, public outrage against the North may sway the South into making its own choices, independently from Washington’s – especially if Pyongyang decides to act on its threats.

Japan: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s no-show at the summit’s opening dinner, and his subsequent muted presence among the world leaders, suggest that Japan’s current preoccupation may be less North Korea and more domestic politics – including debate over a consumption tax hike that Noda has said he is staking his political career on. As the Japan Times commented, even his bilateral meetings with top world leaders were “impromptu chats that lasted for a few minutes.” In addition, public backing for nuclear energy – whether for civilian or defense purposes – is around all-time lows following Fukushima.

While the Japanese Defense Ministry has said it intends to try to shoot down any missile North Korea fires over Japanese territory, it remains to be seen whether this will actually happen. Pyongyang’s launch of its Taepodong-II ballistic missile in 2009 saw it travel unmolested, first over the Sea of Japan, then Japan itself – before its remaining stages and payload fell into the Pacific Ocean, 800 miles off Japan’s eastern coast. Would Tokyo run the risk of allowing this to happen again?

Notwithstanding its songun (military-first) politics and juche (policy of self-reliance) ideology, Kim Jong-un has apparently started to govern in a way consistent with the way Pyongyang has approached things for almost half a century. This is bad news for everyone else.

Benjamin Ho Tze Ern is an Associate Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.