ISSN 2330-717X

The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Discovering An Agenda – Analysis


By PR Chari

Over fifty nations are gathering in Seoul on 25-26 March to confer on nuclear security issues a second time. They had met in Washington two years back to discuss the catastrophic threat of nuclear terrorism and the consequent need to secure weapons usable nuclear materials. These broad issues of preventing nuclear terrorism, securing radioactive materials that could find used to fashion a radiological device or ‘dirty bomb’, and curbing the civilian use of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium, remain the leitmotif of the Seoul Summit. However, a controversy has erupted even before the second Summit begins in Seoul on whether it should narrow its focus on nuclear security and gaining control over weapons-usable nuclear materials, or the agenda should be widened to include related issues like nuclear safety, developments threatening the integrity of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and, inevitably, the problems arising from North Korea and Iran. Both sides of this proposition could be argued inconclusively. But, a deflection of the debate to finding an agenda could derail the Summit meeting.

The historical narrative informs that President Obama’s basic reason for calling the first Washington Nuclear Security Summit in March 2010 was to mobilize international support for acquiring control over weapons-usable fissile material stocks. The underlying angst was that non-state actors (read terrorists) could gain access to these stocks, manufacture nuclear weapons, and deploy them for either blackmail or actual use. President Obama was thereby extending the agenda laid out in his Prague speech in April 2009 to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy. He accepted that the US would have to retain its deterrent as long as ‘global zero’ was not achieved. But, he also signalled his determination to pursue a New START agreement to reduce strategic offensive weapon systems (since achieved), seek Senate ratification on the CTBT, revive negotiations on a FMCT, and strengthen the NPT by moving towards nuclear disarmament. Further, he would promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy by establishing international fuel banks, and secure all nuclear materials in four years. Apropos, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) would be actively supported. Finally, North Korea and Iran would be dissuaded from infracting the rules of the global nuclear regime.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster (March 2011) has radicalized these perspectives. The dispersal of radioactive materials after a powerful earthquake followed by a tsunami led to the damage being compounded, and heightened the danger of illicit trafficking and smuggling of nuclear materials. The need for cooperating to prevent terrorists from gaining access to these radioactive materials was also accentuated. The Seoul Summit could discuss these issues, and the need to strengthen the IAEA for this purpose. The holdouts must be persuaded to join the Additional Protocol to the IAEA’s safeguards agreements. But, it must also be charged with certifying the safety and security of new nuclear facilities, including power plants. Incidentally, India has consistently argued that the IAEA only serves the interests of the nuclear weapons states by pursuing its regulatory functions, but not those of the developing nations by promoting its promotional functions.

Of course, the Seoul Summit meeting will be unable to ignore the missing presence of North Korea and Iran that constitute the present danger to the non-proliferation ideal. President Obama is making a ceremonial visit to the DMZ to acknowledge the division of the Korean peninsula, and also to highlight the problem posed by North Korea to peace in the region. Both North Korea and Iran would be discussed during the Summit, perhaps on its sidelines. The need for consensus building gets accentuated since both these aberrant countries are inching steadily towards developing their nuclear capabilities, while repeatedly expressing their willingness to join in negotiations that linger on interminably.

So, what could be the agenda for the Second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul? Nuclear security should, of course, dominate the proceedings, with counter-proliferation options being discussed to meet the nuclear terrorist threat. Nuclear safety issues cannot, however, be ignored. Sequestering weapons-grade materials in reactors using highly enriched uranium or plutonium and adopting proliferation sensitive processes instead, should be on the agenda. Hopefully, strengthening the IAEA by making it a certifying agency and using its expertise to improve materials accounting procedures in the interest of nuclear security will get discussed. The IAEA could also be tasked to share its expertise in establishing Centres of Excellence to promote nuclear safety and security, and to enlarge public awareness on these issues. North Korea and Iran will force themselves onto the agenda. Hopefully, there will be progress on all these agenda items, and not much will be carried forward to the next nuclear security summit in 2014.

PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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