Fears About North Korea and Iran Will Dominate Nuclear Summit Meeting in Seoul
March 23, 2012
Mark Landler / The New York Times
President Obama will join the leaders of more than 50 countries here next week for a nuclear security summit meeting, where fears about two rogue states, North Korea and Iran, will loom over a gathering ostensibly about the perils of nuclear terrorism.
SEOUL, South Korea (March 23, 2012) -- President Obama will join the leaders of more than 50 countries here next week for a nuclear security summit meeting, where fears about two rogue states, North Korea and Iran, will loom over a gathering ostensibly about the perils of nuclear terrorism.
Mr. Obama, administration officials said, is likely to urge China to use its influence to curb the latest provocation by North Korea: the country's announcement of plans to launch a satellite, atop a long-range missile, to honor its revered founder, Kim Il-sung. The United States and the United Nations Security Council have condemned such satellite launchings in the past as a cover for developing the missiles, which could eventually be used to deliver nuclear weapons.
The rising tensions will create a charged backdrop for Mr. Obama's visit on Sunday to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, where he will greet American troops. The North has warned, in characteristically bellicose terms, that it would regard any discussion of its nuclear program at the meeting as a "declaration of war."
South Korea is playing host to the biennial gathering, which was first convened by Mr. Obama two years ago in Washington and is devoted to preventing dangerous nuclear material, like highly enriched uranium, from falling into the hands of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.
While the formal speeches and statements will be heavy on commitments to lock down such "fissile material,"the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea will dominate the hallway conversation, as well as Mr. Obama's meetings with Chinese and Russian leaders.
The specter of a North Korean missile launch has jeopardized a tentative diplomatic opening to that country's new leader, Kim Jong-un. The United States warned that a satellite launch would scuttle an American agreement to provide the poor country with desperately needed food aid.
Mr. Obama is likely to raise the issue with President Hu Jintao of China in a meeting on Monday. China is North Korea's main patron, but has shown growing impatience with its belligerence, particularly the sinking two years ago of a South Korean Navy warship, which the North denies responsibility for.
"We certainly hope and recommend that China bring all the instruments of power to bear to influence the decision-making in North Korea,"said Daniel R. Russel, head of Asia policy in the National Security Council. Otherwise, he warned, the North Koreans will "deepen their isolation."
The United States has had a mixed record with China on these issues. The Chinese backed sanctions against North Korea and Iran, but joined Russia in blocking a United Nations resolution calling for political change in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces are killing thousands of demonstrators.
Mr. Obama will have a chance to renew the pressure on Russia to act on Syria when he meets Monday with President Dmitri A. Medvedev. It will be Mr. Medvedev's last meeting with Mr. Obama as president. Vladimir V. Putin, elected this month to succeed Mr. Medvedev, will represent Russia at a meeting of the Group of 8 nations at Camp David, Md., in May.
Mr. Medvedev, in a speech at the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs on Friday, suggested that chances for a breakthrough on Syria were small. Addressing United States and international defense experts, he faulted proposals from Western countries to use force in Iran and Syria, and called for legal means to block United Nations member nations from acting without the blessing of the Security Council.
"Someone wants to create a modern democratic country in Syria, someone wants to ‘finish off' Iran's nuclear program,"Mr. Medvedev said. "Yes, we are also very worried about many processes, including those I have mentioned. But in everything that is going on, you often see simply damaged logic and the psychology of war."
Mr. Medvedev also left little hope that he and Mr. Obama could break an impasse on a planned missile defense shield, which Russia fears could intercept its own nuclear missiles. "We have time, but it is running out,"Mr. Medvedev said, reiterating the longstanding Russian demand for a legally binding commitment that Russian forces would not be targeted.
For Mr. Obama, the visit to the demilitarized zone, his first, is a staple of cold war-era diplomacy. But it is also a gesture to South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, with whom the president has grown personally close, as the White House has made South Korea arguably its staunchest Asian ally.
The flare-up of tensions with North Korea is a reminder, experts say, of how crafty a negotiator the country can be. Days after announcing the satellite launch, the North Koreans invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to tour nuclear facilities there.
That could put the United States in an awkward position, the experts said. If North Korea goes ahead with the launch and the administration rescinds its food aid, the North will have a pretext to expel the inspectors from the country and blame Washington.
"We don't get what we want, which is to have inspectors on the ground, and to have no missile tests or other provocations,"said Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on North Korea to President George W. Bush. "The question is, how did we get into the situation?"
Given North Korea's unreliable history, administration officials said, they had meager expectations that food aid would set the stage for a breakthrough on nuclear negotiations.
Managing expectations will also be a theme of the broader summit meeting. While there are a few notable successes -- Ukraine, which once had 2,600 strategic nuclear weapons, is expected to announce that it has eliminated all its weapons-usable material -- Pakistan and other countries are continuing to make bombs and weapons-grade fuel.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan as well as nuclear security issues.
"If you were grading on a broad scale, there would be a lot of incomplete scores,"said Sam Nunn, a former senator from Georgia and the founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private advocacy group in Washington, who cited India, Iran and Pakistan.
Still, said Graham T. Allison, a nuclear terrorism expert and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, "for focusing attention on a problem, conferences like this are powerful."
Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.