The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and the Shadow of the Future

As the Netherlands prepares to host the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit from March 24-25, the end of the forum itself is also approaching. As with previous summits, the focus of this year’s summit will be on preventing nuclear terrorism. The United States expects the Summit to advance this goal in three key areas: further commitments to dispose of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, efforts to strengthen the global “nuclear security architecture,” and “assurances,” or voluntary actions that states can take to demonstrate to the international community that they are maintaining high standards for nuclear security without disclosing sensitive information.

Fukushima and the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

I wrote an op-ed for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on March 18th on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. It can be found here.

There are two op-eds worth reading written by the Center’s Board members:

Frank von Hippel at Princeton University wrote in the New York Times on March 23rd on the need to learn from the Fukushima disaster and reduce dangers around the world. He writes, “We therefore must make existing reactors safer, develop a new generation of safer designs and prevent nuclear power from facilitating nuclear proliferation. As tragic as the Fukushima disaster has been, it has provided a rare opportunity to advance those goals.”

Matthew Bunn at Harvard University wrote in the Washington Post on March 23rd on ways to reduce a Fukushima-like disaster elsewhere. He writes, “Ultimately, regular independent, international reviews should be the norm in nuclear operations worldwide. All countries must demonstrate that they are doing everything practicable to prevent the next Fukushima — or something far worse.”

South-North Korea Military Dialogue Soon?

South Korea has reportedly accepted North Korea’s proposal for high-level military talks. Pyongyang’s proposal came on Thursday immediately following U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Wednesday summit, which called for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization. So it appears there was prior coordination between Beijing and Pyongyang ahead of the U.S.-China summit. It also appears preparatory cross-border talks at the working-level could commence in early February. However, the two Koreas are in for some very tough discussions, and the results of the preparatory meeting will determine whether and when formal military talks take place.

It would be the first time in about three months since the two Koreas held military discussions. Last September, Pyongyang was unwilling to discuss the sinking of the Cheonan ship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

This time, Seoul’s Unification Ministry says Pyongyang proposed discussing the sinking of the South’s Cheonan ship and artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong Island.

Why the sudden seemingly conciliatory gesture? (Click “

It’s hard to know for sure, but it cannot be easily ruled out that there may be a hidden agenda behind their outward show.

Seoul, Washington and Tokyo’s conditions for the resumption of the Six Party Talks are inter-Korean dialogue to address Korean tensions and a sincere gesture to denuclearize:

1. Inter-Korean dialogue & Pyongyang’s proposal on agenda:
It does not seem likely that North Korea would easily apologize for its two attacks, and it may try to steer the focus toward establishing a special peace zone in the West Sea as agreed upon during the October 2007 Inter-Korean summit. Pyongyang may also be using the cross-border meeting as a mere show hoping to jump on the fast-track toward direct talks with Washington.

However, the upcoming cross-border talks will still be a chance for Seoul to gauge how sincere Pyongyang is in taking responsibility for its attacks and promising to restrain from further provocations.

Yeonpyeong Island attack: North Korea has publically acknowledged shelling the South Korean island that killed soldiers and civilians, so Pyongyang could “express regret” over the incident, which could be interpreted as a form of taking responsibility.

Cheonan ship sinking: This is a much trickier matter because Pyongyang has denied torpedoing the South Korea ship, which goes against the results of an international investigation . It seems unlikely that Pyongyang would reverse its position at the inter-Korean military talks. Instead, the regime could choose to say something along the lines that it “would continue to work together toward resolving the issue.” However, it is unclear whether this type of “flexibility” would be enough for Seoul to give the green light for Six Party Talk preparations.

2. Nuclear talks:
Seoul would also like to hold high-level cross-border talks on the North’s nuclear programs to gauge the level of Pyongyang’s sincerity to denuclearize. However, the regime has in the past refused to discuss the nuclear issue with Seoul claiming it is a matter between it and Washington. The North has typically used the “nuclear card” to elicit direct talks with the U.S.

On the surface, it appears the pieces are about to become aligned to create an environment favorable for the resumption of the Six Party Talks. But there’s still a lot work to be done before all the pieces can fall into place.

U.S.-China Summit & North Korea

As expected, the joint statement produced by Presidents Obama and Hu was not ground-breaking on the North Korean issue. It is hard to say that there were any substantially new achievements. However, it was still a positive outcome with some meaningful points because it reflected both sides’ positions on contentious issues (regardless of an agreement), and it generally kept in line with the position of Washington’s allies.

Washington and Beijing agreed on some key points in general and in principle, but many of those key points are reaffirmation of each other’s original positions. The language is also heavily nuanced, which is normal in public diplomatic rhetoric. It appears Beijing has not steered far away from its original stance, and we can still see that Washington and Beijing hold differing views on those same key points.

Here’s a run-down of some initial thoughts on points that stand out: (Click “read more”)

(1.) “The United States and China emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step.”

It’s clear South Korea’s position was reflected in the joint statement because Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are pushing for inter-Korean dialogue to precede the Six Party Talks in the wake of consecutive North Korean attacks.

(2.) “(In this context), the United States and China expressed concern regarding the DPRK’s claimed uranium enrichment program”

This is perhaps the most eye-catching because the joint statement specifically mentions “uranium enrichment program,” which is a term President Hu avoided in the joint press conference. This sentence is significant because it’s clear that Washington’s (and its allies’) position has been reflected in the joint statement, and it’s significant because it the term “uranium enrichment program” is specifically mentioned. It also shows Beijing is concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear developments.

At the same time, however, the language has been left a bit vague to reflect Beijing’s main position with the phrase “claimed” uranium enrichment program. Just days before the summit, China’s foreign ministry made a public comment that failed to acknowledge the existence of a uranium enrichment facility shown to an American scientist last November. So it’s clear there are fundamental differences here.

Still, “the United States and China reiterated the need for concrete and effective steps to achieve the goal of denuclearization and for full implementation of the other commitments made in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” Hopefully this will translate into real action to jumpstart dialogue.

(3.) The joint statement did NOT specifically condemn North Korea’s attacks on South Korea: “Both sides expressed concern over heightened tensions on the Peninsula triggered by recent developments.”

However, President Obama said in their joint press conference that the two sides “agreed that North Korea must avoid further provocations.”

What’s most important is how North Korea will respond, and how Washington and Beijing will follow up on their joint statement.

The joint statement says, “The two sides called for the necessary steps that would allow for early resumption of the Six-Party Talks process to address this and other relevant issues.” However, Washington and Beijing still disagree on the mechanics of moving forward. The U.S., South Korea and Japan want inter-Korean dialogue first, then the Six Party Talks. China, on the other hand, wants the Six Party Talks first and THEN deal with all outstanding issues. The concern surrounding Beijing’s proposal is that Pyongyang’s attacks will remain unresolved and overshadowed by six party nuclear negotiations, which many argue is exactly what North Korea wants.

The allies want the road to dialogue to generally look something like this:

Some gesture of taking responsibility for attacks ==> Inter-Korean dialogue ==> Genuine action reflecting a sincere will to denuclearize ==> U.S.-North Korea dialogue ==> Six Party Talks.

Washington will be debriefing Seoul on the summit by sending a senior official to South Korea. But aside from the summit’s results, we’ll likely see a flurry of diplomacy among the six parties in the weeks and months to come.  While it’s always tough to make predictions about diplomacy, we may see some real action as early as February, which is after President Obama’s State of the Union address next week.