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A Nuclear-Free World and Korea

By Lee Dong-hwi, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea

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Non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy are the goals being worked toward by the US. And as host of the next Nuclear Security Summit, Korea is in the spotlight

The first nuclear security summit was held in Washington DC on 12-13 April 2010. Topping the agenda was how to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Leaders from 47 countries and three international organisations, including the United Nations, expressed the international community’s resolve to build a “nuclear-free world”.

The international community’s efforts to mitigate the danger of nuclear proliferation while enabling the peaceful use of nuclear energy began in January 1946, when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to establish the UN Atomic Energy Commission. The initiative was never realised, but US president Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech resulted in the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957 and the launch of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. The Nuclear Suppliers Group launched in 1974 has also contributed to international non-proliferation efforts by operating as a nuclear-related export control mechanism.

While such continued non-proliferation endeavours have succeeded in limiting the number of states with nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear proliferation has increased since the end of the Cold War. This increase can be ascribed to two changes. The first is the collapse of the Cold War structure and the ensuing multipolarisation. The Cold War was marked by a confrontation between two camps. The use of nuclear weapons was strictly controlled, which in turn made proliferation difficult. In contrast, multipolarity in the post–Cold War era has diluted these structural constraints. Feeling vulnerable because of changes in the post–Cold War international security environment, some countries have continued to pursue nuclear programmes, mistakenly believing that the possession of nuclear weapons will bolster their national security.

Second, rapid advances in information technology and in the means of transport have accelerated globalisation. Consequently, today’s physical conditions facilitate the cross-border transit of and trade in equipment, materials and technologies that can be used for nuclear development. These developments call for an international control mechanism for non-proliferation. The new mobility brought by globalisation becomes much more serious when it joins up with terrorism, which has emerged as a security threat since the end of the Cold War.

The nuclear-free debate gained momentum in 2007 and 2008, when Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn contributed articles to the Wall Street Journal on the issue. It surfaced again as an urgent task after US president Barack Obama’s speech in Prague in April 2009 and a UN Security Council meeting in September 2009. Against this backdrop, the United States hosted the First Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 with four goals: 1) to lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years; 2) to set new standards and partnerships to lock down sensitive nuclear materials; 3) to turn ad-hoc efforts, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, into international institutions; and 4) to build on efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt dangerous trade.

US efforts to curb nuclear proliferation are also reflected in the recently issued 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. In the report, the US emphasises its resolve to prevent nuclear terrorism and attempts to reduce the possibility of nuclear development from threat perceptions by pledging “negative security assurances” to countries that adhere to non-proliferation obligations, which exclude Iran and North Korea.

US efforts toward non-proliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism ran in parallel with its nuclear reduction initiatives. On 8 April, a few days before the nuclear security summit, Washington concluded a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Moscow. As the US has the largest nuclear weapons arsenal, this latest move will contribute substantially to reinforcing the NPT regime, which has three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The peaceful use of nuclear energy, along with nonproliferation, shows the dual nature of the nuclear issue. New emerging economies are often mentioned as the greatest change on the 21st-century international political and economic scene. Their rapid development is linked to the current global financial crisis. Furthermore, they are major players in global energy supply–and–demand and in the international response to climate change. These issues naturally give rise to calls for increased supplies of nuclear energy, which in turn raise the need to establish new global governance over the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The international community is thus faced with the twin challenges of non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The participants in the Washington Nuclear Security Summit decided to meet in Seoul for a second summit in 2012. Korea, which will also host the fifth G20 summit in November 2010, is emerging as an important focal point in efforts to manage international political and economic realities.

The fact that a follow-on nuclear summit will be held is itself significant for continuing efforts to build a nuclear-free world. However, it is even more remarkable that Korea was named the host of the next summit, for the following reasons.

First, the Korean peninsula is susceptible to global non-proliferation efforts due to North Korea’s continued nuclear development programme. Although the parties to the Six-Party Talks have continued to work toward Pyongyang’s denuclearisation, there are too many stumbling blocks for a positive outcome. That the second nuclear security summit will be held in Seoul under these circumstances indicates that the North Korean nuclear issue has surfaced as the core of global non-proliferation efforts. At the same time, it raises the expectation that the summit might exert international pressure in a positive way to expedite the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

In particular, a number of political events in neighbouring countries may create a security vacuum in 2012. It would not be an overstatement to say that the summit will contribute to peace and stability in this region, given the weight that the summit carries from an international security perspective.

Second, the second nuclear summit may reaffirm the international community’s confidence in and expectation of Korea’s peaceful use of nuclear energy. This stands in stark contrast to North Korea’s moves to develop nuclear weapons. This is an easy conclusion to reach, considering that Seoul’s hosting of the next nuclear summit would have been impossible without international confidence in Korea, which has faithfully observed the norms of major nuclear-related international regimes such as the NPT and the IAEA. As a top-ranking atomic energy state, Korea has operated nuclear power plants more safely and stably than any other country. Based on this experience, it has become a key exporter of nuclear-generating equipment and technologies. The Seoul nuclear summit will be an opportunity to give further publicity to these facts. All in all, the summit will enhance Korea’s international status and bring it greater economic benefits. In addition, the Seoul nuclear summit will have positive implications for the resolution of nuclear-related issues in the 21st century – building a nuclear-free world for global security and attaining more free nuclear energy for the global economy.

In this vein, just as the G20 Seoul Summit will serve as the latitude for broadening the horizons of Korean diplomacy in the 21st century, the Seoul nuclear security summit in 2012 will provide the longitude for it. u

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