Review of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul from March 26-27, welcomed 50 countries in reaffirming their commitment to strengthening security on nuclear materials to prevent loss, misuse and theft in order to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

It aimed to identify the same risks and consolidate the same pledges as the first Summit which took place in Washington two years ago, but there was a push for more concrete action on the commitments made. In addition to addressing the foundations of nuclear security – nuclear terrorism, the protection of nuclear material and facilities, and the prevention of illicit trade in nuclear material – nuclear security gained a place on the agenda, in light of the Fukushima nuclear incident last year. Furthermore, while Iran and North Korea did not dominate the theme of the Summit, leaders in attendance could not ignore the rising ‘drumbeat of war’ in the Middle East, or the clamour over North Korea’s recent announcement of its planned satellite launch in April, resulting in a continuation of political discussions over these issues at the periphery of the Summit.

Role of the U.S. and Obama at the Summit
As the host of the first Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama made clear his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation at the onset of first term, pledging to secure vulnerable nuclear materials from terrorists by 2013.  He reiterated his commitment to nuclear security at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, urging other countries to treat this issue with top priority. Focusing on Russia, he emphasised his desire to achieve further bilateral cuts in both countries’ nuclear arsenals and to proactively address the issue of ballistic missile defense.

However, his diplomatic efforts at this Summit were overshadowed by an off-the-record exchange with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, in which Obama was overheard claiming he would have greater flexibility on negotiating the ballistic missile defense shield with future President Vladimir Putin after the US Presidential election in November. The United States and its Western allies plan to build a missile defense system in Europe, which they insist is aimed at neutralising a potential attack from Iran. However, Moscow believes it is also designed to counter its own missile threat, and claims that the shield would violate Russian sovereignty. Despite criticism by conservative politicians in the United States, which drew in Russian politicians too—Mitt Romney in particular contended that Obama needed to ‘level with the American public about his real agenda’—Obama’s remarks are indicative of his dedication to further arms reductions, as well as reducing the reliance on ballistic missile defense.

North Korea and Iran: absent but still very present

Talk of North Korea’s intent to launch a satellite (as well as the launch of two surface-to-ship missiles during the Summit) dominated the political landscape during the Summit. Heavily criticised by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during the Summit, and Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka has since revealed orders to shoot down the rocket if it threatens Japanese territory. The satellite launch is widely regarded as a test for an intercontinental ballistic missile that would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and may potentially derail future talks with the United States, Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea. It has already jeopardised the recent agreement between the United States and North Korea of a moratorium on long-range missile tests and uranium enrichment, along with IAEA inspections of the moratorium, in exchange for food aid. President Obama was resolute in directly addressing North Korea, warning of further international isolation if the state failed to overturn its decision. He urged Pyongyang to comply with international obligations, affirming that ‘there will be no rewards for provocation’.

Recent calls for military action over Iran’s nuclear program also cast a shadow over the Summit. A series of pre-Summit meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey, as well as President Hu Jintao of China denoted an extension of Obama’s diplomatic efforts to pressure both North Korea and Iran into changing policy on their nuclear programs. Though the Islamic Republic rejects allegations of having a nuclear weapons program, maintaining that its enrichment work is for peaceful civilian energy production, Obama stated that Iran ‘must meet its obligations’ with the international community, adding that the time for a diplomatic solution was ‘short’. His statements came ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan, who was expected to relay such sentiment in a later meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the Summit. Similarly, in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama implored that China use its favourable relationship with North Korea to alter the latter’s behaviour.

Actions/Policies on Nuclear Terrorism
In terms of the Summit’s technical achievements, there was a high priority placed on protecting caches of highly enriched uranium across the globe, urging countries to reduce their reliance upon nuclear energy to the lowest level possible, and welcoming official declarations by the end of 2013 to meet those goals. The Summit boasted an 80 per cent achievement rate of voluntary targets set out in 2010. This was realized through activities such as the removal of all stocks of highly-enriched uranium from Ukraine, an agreement to coordinate illegal trade of nuclear material, and the joint clean-up of the Semipalatinsk testing site in Kazakhstan. Furthermore, in important developments for the safer use of nuclear energy, a Mexican scientific nuclear system was also declared to now be capable of using low-enriched uranium, as a result of an effort by Canada, Mexico and the United States. French and Belgian nuclear research systems were also declared to experimentally run on atomised uranium molybdenum fuel to be refined in 2013 in South Korea and France, from two hundred and twenty pounds of low-enriched uranium from the United States.

Goals for the Netherlands in 2014
Although the Summit was able to boast of its technical achievements as a highly significant success for global nuclear cooperation, particular in light of North Korea and Iran, it has been criticised for lacking specificity on how to achieve the desired outcomes with regard to securing vulnerable nuclear material, given that several states have objected to an international safety standards on the grounds of national sovereignty. Nonetheless, with the Netherlands having been established as the location for the next Nuclear Security Summit due to occur in 2014, an impetus is already in place for tighter measures to secure nuclear material, preventing its trafficking, and reducing the scope for the possibility of nuclear terrorism. The transition away from highly-enriched to low-enriched uranium for civilian energy purposes is also a key goal for 2014, whilst the Netherlands called for international cooperation in the area of nuclear forensics—an area critical in tracing the origin of nuclear material and identifying terrorists.


Summit Statements and Official Documents

Official Website of the Nuclear Security Summit

Seoul Communiqué
Nuclear Security Summit, March 26, 2012

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s remarks, Plenary Statement
Nuclear Security Summit, 27 March 2012

Remarks by President Obama at Opening Plenary Session
Nuclear Security Summit, March 26, 2012

UK Minister of State for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey, Statement
Nuclear Security Summit, Seoul, March 27, 2012

President Lee Myung-bak’s Closing Statement
Nuclear Security Summit, March 27, 2012

Republic Of Korea-EU Summit – Joint Press Statement
European Commission, March 30, 2012


Op-Eds and News Stories

Netherlands Asked to Host Nuclear Security Summit 2014
Permanent Mission of the Netherlands to the United Nations

Seoul Summit: A View from Moscow
Sergei Lavrov, Washington Times, March 23, 2012

Fears About North Korea and Iran Will Dominate Nuclear Summit Meeting in Seoul
Mark Landler, March 23, 2012

Obama Wants More Nuclear Cuts with Russia, Warns Iran, North Korea
Radio Free Europe, March 28, 2012

Obama to Discuss North Korea, Iran
Carol E. Lee and Jay Soloman, Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012

What Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit Means for Iran and North Korea
Major Garrett, The Atlantic, March 26 2012

Obama in push for ‘world without nuclear weapons’
BBC, March 25, 2012

Summit Demands Steps on Nuclear Terror Threat
Global Security Newswire, March 27, 2012

Report: Turkey’s Erdogan to visit Iran following nuclear summit
Haaretz, March 1, 2012

Barack Obama caught hinting at concessions to Dmitry Medvedev
Jon Swaine, The Telegraph, March 26, 2012

Playing Politics with Nuclear Security
Joe Cirinicione, Huffington Post, March 28, 2012

World Leaders Vow to Secure Loose Nuclear Material by 2014
Jonathan Tirone, Bloomberg, March 27, 2012

Summit seeks to deter nuclear-armed terrorism
Christopher Bodeen and Foster Klug, Boston Globe, March 28, 2012

Korea’s nuke security is higher than United States
Philip Iglauer, Korea Times, March 25, 2012

Japan goes off script at nuclear summit to slam North Korea
Kiyoshi Takenaka and Jack Kim, March 27, 2012

Japan will intercept N Korean rocket if necessary
BBC, March 30, 2012


Analyses & Background

Seoul’s Turn: The Second Nuclear Security Summit
Sung-Hwan Kim, Global Asia, March 26, 2012

The Legacy of the Nuclear Security Summit
Mark Hibbs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 29, 2012

The Nuclear Security Summit: Assessment of National Commitments
Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security, updated March 20, 2012

Seoul Searching: An International Dialogue on Peace and Security
Nuclear Threat Initiative, March 20, 2012

What Seoul can and can’t achieve
Jasper Panzda, International Institute for Strategic Studies, March 23, 2012

North Korea and the Nuclear Security Summit: Absent but Very Much Present
Jonathan Pollack, Brookings Institution, March 25, 2012

Keeping the Lid on: Nuclear Security and the Washington Summit
Ian Kearns, BASIC, April 7, 2010
–Review compiled by Rachel Staley, Nikita Shah, and Tirion Davies


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