North Korea and a Nuclear Summit

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North Korea and a Nuclear Summit

North Korea has been excluded from next week’s nuclear summit in Seoul. Maybe it should have been invited.

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.