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Pyongyang steals the show

March 27, 2012

The nuclear ambitions of North Korea, as well as Iran, were left off the agenda during the two-day Global Nuclear Summit in Seoul. North Korea nonetheless managed to steal the show by announcing a 'rocket' test.

Image: Reuters

Following his delivery of the joint communiqué on Tuesday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was questioned about Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and planned long-range missile or rocket test.

"I do believe the summit will have some influence (on North Korea)." President Lee told reporters at the conclusion of the summit. "Cooperation is in the interest of North Korea."

'Declaration of war'

Pyongyang had warned that any mention of its nuclear program during the summit would be considered a "declaration of war." That didn’t stop US President Barack Obama from calling on the North to return to denuclearization talks but only from the sidelines of the conference. He also asked for the help of Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and China's Hu Jintao in forcing Pyongyang to scrap its self-proclaimed rocket launch, which many analysts claim is a long-range missile test in disguise.

"North Korea seems to be the only one who believes this is a rocket and not a missile," says Duyeon Kim, deputy director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. Pyongyang says it plans to put a satellite into space to mark the 100th birthday of founding father Kim Il Sung in mid April. The Obama administration and its allies have warned that if the launch goes ahead, planned food aid to the impoverished North could be canceled.

Kim says that summit organizers could have found a more nuanced way of condemning North Korea in their declaration, but that also could have backfired.

"To specifically put North Korea on the official agenda could have legitimized North Korea’s nuclear program," she said. "It could also attract attention away from the main objective, which really is nuclear terrorism."

Deal on enriched uranium

On that front, leaders at the security summit were able to come up with one deal that will eventually see a reduction in highly enriched uranium, a weapons grade material. The US has pledged to supply low enriched uranium to France and Belgium for use in medical research facilities that produce radioactive isotopes.

"Converting research reactors around the world from the use of HEU fuel to LEU fuel, is a crucial part in enhancing global nuclear security," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. If it falls into the wrong hands, HEU can be used to make so-called dirty bombs and be used by terrorist groups to strike at military or civilian targets.

But while the agreement is a step in the right direction, it does very little to truly enhance global nuclear security. That’s according to Miles Pomper, who researches non-proliferation at the Monteray Institute for International Studies.

"There is no legal standard internationally that's binding (regarding) what it means to secure materials," he said.

Pomper explains there is currently no mechanism to determine how much nuclear material a nation has secured. Even the term "secure" is vague, he says. And while some states have boasted about their progress since the first security summit in 2010, there is still much work left for them to do.

"Russia has done some very good work in taking material from other countries back to Russia but has done very little, actually next to nothing, about converting its own facilities to low enriched uranium," Pomper notes.

Pomper doubts that world leaders will be able to live up to their pledge to secure all nuclear materials by the end of next year. And by the time they meet again in 2014 in the Netherlands, Pomper says he hopes to see more defined goals than what were presented in Seoul.

"We need a bigger picture, a more ambitious agenda going forward to the Netherlands," he says.

A peer review system is one way that nations can better verify their progress in securing nuclear material, Pomper adds. Otherwise, he says, they are just claiming success with no way of backing that up with proof.

Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Grahame Lucas

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, center, greeted as he arrives at Gimpo airport in Seoul
German Foreign Minister Westerwelle: 'securing nuclear materials is a common global challenge'Image: AP
US President Barack Obama delivering a speech before attending the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit
President Obama called on North Korea to return to denuclearization talksImage: Reuters