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On March 26-27, Seoul will host the second Nuclear Security Summit, an initiative established by the Obama administration in Washington in 2010. Some 50 world leaders, as well as scores of NGOs and industry and business representatives on the periphery of the central meeting, will discuss the summit’s main aim: to prevent loose nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. Different regional actors will have different agendas and priorities for the summit, and it is therefore important to consider the issues and concerns for Northeast Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and former Soviet states and stakeholders. A March 21 Wilson Center event, organized by the Asia Program, and cosponsored by several other programs, provided a forum for experts based in Washington to discuss these views.

According to L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, South Korea and Japan agree with the general goals of the summit, but harbor a temptation to broaden its agenda. Some analysts initially feared that Seoul would try to politicize the conference, steering it away from securing the world’s nuclear materials to a broader discussion of proliferation so as to focus on North Korean delinquency. Nevertheless, such fears are probably unjustified, as the summit is more than just a technical conference for South Korea; it is also an attempt to showcase national diplomatic dexterity and prowess as the host of the largest international meeting between heads of state ever held on Korean soil. Seoul therefore has a vested interest in seeing the summit succeed, and has not attempted to move beyond the summit’s narrow focus. However, the propensity always exists for North Korea, to whom many analysts assume China is a patron, to upstage the discussions with provocation. Indeed, Pyongyang, which is not party to the talks, has recently announced plans to launch a satellite into orbit which would be in flagrant disregard of UN Security Council resolutions designed to curtail a North Korean nuclear threat. If such a launch were to occur during the discussions on nuclear security, the North would immediately become the center of attention, both at the summit and in the international media. Meanwhile, Japan, after the events at Fukushima, might attempt to steer discussion toward accident prevention and mitigation, a topic that is also outside the summit agenda. China, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has somewhat little to add to the conference, as it tends to be a follower on nuclear security issues and is not bringing any policy differences to the table.

In her presentation, Deepti Choubey, senior director for nuclear and biosecurity at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), outlined a framework that her organization has developed in order to provide an assessment of nuclear security measures in various states. The NTI hopes that the framework, which rates states’ performance over time, will serve to promote dialogue and allow governments to establish agreements on policy priorities related to nuclear security. Countries without weapons-usable nuclear material have a role to play in nuclear security efforts, for example, by ensuring that their territory does not become a safe haven or transit point for nuclear smuggling operations. Such nations are therefore assessed according to their outward willingness to adhere to global norms, such as transparency standards and treaty frameworks, their capacity and willingness to implement appropriate nuclear security policies, and societal factors such as the level of domestic corruption or instability. In addition to these criteria, countries with more than one kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear material are assessed according to the quantity of material and the number of nuclear sites, and the security and control measures put in place at those sites. In the Middle East, the region that Choubey used to demonstrate the NTI index, only Israel and Iran fall into the category of countries with nuclear weapons-usable materials, and most of the problems surrounding these two countries arise from transparency and the appropriate stewardship of materials. Meanwhile, for countries without sufficient stockpiles of such material, social stability is a major issue, only exacerbated by recent unrest associated with the Arab Spring.

Social unrest is also a problem for Pakistan, which, according to Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is near the bottom of the NTI’s list in terms of corruption and social stability. Indeed, the emergence of domestic terror groups in Pakistan and the country’s inauspicious role as the hub of the A.Q. Khan nuclear network have meant that in recent years Pakistan has been a “poster child for nuclear security concerns.” While there is little international confidence in Pakistan’s domestic security organizations, Dalton views as risible the notion that state security personal might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists. Concerns about the A.Q. Khan network, meanwhile, have only made Pakistan tighten controls. Compared to Pakistan, India seems less of a security risk, in part because its nuclear energy program is run by civilian contractors rather than the military. However, serious issues concerning the transparency of India’s civil and military nuclear program remain, and India’s atomic energy agencies work only grudgingly with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Whatever their qualms about nuclear security measures, however, both India and Pakistan view the Nuclear Security Summit as a valuable forum that allows the two nations, as non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to engage with the rest of the world on nuclear issues.

After the Cold War, many analysts believed that the biggest threat to nuclear security was the existence of loose nuclear materials in the Soviet Union. That risk is less of an issue today thanks to cooperative efforts between Washington and Moscow to secure those materials. Indeed, Russia’s leadership appears to take the challenge of nuclear security extremely seriously, and is widely believed to be competent in establishing corresponding measures. As Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, points out, there is good reason for Russia to assuage doubts about its capacity to deal with nuclear materials safely. Nuclear security problems raise doubts about the attraction of maintaining a nuclear deterrent, a core goal of Russia’s nuclear strategy. At the same time, such problems stand as a liability to Russia’s role as an architect or seller of nuclear technology, two outcomes Moscow would rather avoid. Nevertheless, while confidence in Russia’s capacity to enhance nuclear security has increased, transparency around nuclear issues has decreased. Meanwhile, Russians view the Nuclear Security Summit with a degree of measured cynicism. Because the summit is an initiative of Barack Obama, many Russians doubt whether future American leaders will be as enthusiastic about its goals. While Moscow generally sees nuclear summitry as an opportunity to engage the world in an area where it is a great power, it is wary of meetings that attempt to dilute its influence by including a range of different state actors. The summit stands perhaps more usefully for Russia as the last substantial meeting between Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Obama before the former leaves the office.

By Bryce Wakefield

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program