The Nuclear Summit & Strategic Imperatives in East Asia & Beyond

By Robert Murrett

The Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the Republic of Korea last week provided insight into an important series of global and regional issues.  The leaders from 50 nations around the world sent a powerful message on priorities, regarding a matter of truly strategic importance.  The summit was the second in a series, building on the initial success of the 2010 meeting in Washington.

There are good reasons to highlight this event.  First, progress made on nuclear security since the early 1990’s has received little public attention.  This is largely because of the lackluster and technical nature of day in/day out, routine work at nuclear-associated sites throughout the world.  Nonetheless, nuclear weapons represent the most significant defense and strategic challenge facing the U.S., our allies, and the broader global community.

The summit also drew attention to another aspect of nuclear security that had previously received scant notice.  That is, it is more likely that we will have a nuclear explosion or radiological incident in the next several years, not through a terrorist/rouge state nexus, but rather an incident stemming from lack of resources, inattention, a technical misstep, or simple ineptitude.  Such an incident is not difficult to envision considering the sheer volume of nuclear weapons and associated material worldwide.  In spite of some success over the past twenty years, there are still more than twenty thousand nuclear warheads in various categories around the world.[1]

The second nuclear security issue that the summit highlighted is the challenge posed by “benign proliferation.”  This refers to the broader base of nuclear-associated material and technology which is available worldwide:

“In the past, nonproliferation has often been viewed from the perspective of haves and have-nots, nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapon states, states with advanced nuclear fuel cycles and those without, developed and developing countries.  Today the boundaries are blurred.  The clandestine diffusion of centrifuge design and manufacturing data demonstrates that suppliers in low or middle-income countries can supply sophisticated nuclear products.  An advanced nuclear fuel cycle is not needed.  Indeed, no fuel cycle at all is necessary for a state to become part of the nuclear proliferations problem.”[2]

It was good to see both of these challenges highlighted, and for the leaders to commit to the next Nuclear Security Summit, which will be hosted by the Netherlands.

Finally, the summit also highlighted simmering regional issues in East Asia.  While there was a tacit agreement among the heads of state to not criticize North Korea at the summit, only one leader strayed from the script: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.  This was no surprise for close followers of Asian political dynamics, as Tokyo is steadily moving to reassert itself on regional matters.  The content of the strong remarks by Noda also reflected a good opportunity to send a simultaneous three-way message.  That is, (1) to Pyongyang: we’re really starting to lose our patience regards missile overflight and nuclear weapons, (2) to Beijing: you need to do better job of reining in North Korea, and (3) to Seoul: we’re grateful for your hospitality and appreciate your frustrations with the North, but we are Japan, and when it comes to northeast Asia, we’re going to be vocal.  Noda also may have felt a need to continue Japan’s post-earthquake/tsunami tendency to make sure that their interests are not discounted.

We should all be hopeful that additional, steady progress is made between now and the next summit, and that the focus at the summit on an issue of truly strategic importance will not diminish.  As President Obama stated at the meeting, “we have the opportunity, as partners, to ensure that our progress is not a fleeting moment, but part of a serious and sustained effort.”



[1] Federation of American Scientists, 2012 (http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html)

[2] Brookhaven National Laboratory, 2012