A woman walks by a South Korean police officer during an anti-terrorism… (Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington —
President Obama lands in South Korea this weekend hoping a summit there will highlight his initiative to make the world safer from nuclear terrorism, but the bitterly contested nuclear program just next door may steal the spotlight.
Monday's nuclear security summit, a sequel to a forum Obama held in Washington in 2010, is a step toward the White House goal of securing "all vulnerable nuclear material around the world" by the middle of 2014.
Although some experts are skeptical about how much progress has actually been made, Obama administration officials plan to use the trip as a platform for the president's broader nuclear agenda, which seeks nonproliferation and a reduction in atomic arsenals through increased diplomatic engagement.
But attempts to bring North Korea into negotiations over its nuclear program are as uncertain as ever.
A newly inked food-aid pact with that nation's untested young leader, Kim Jong Un, is in limbo already, upended by Kim's announcement that he planned to launch a satellite in mid-April. The U.S. says such an action would void the deal, which promised food aid after North Korea pledged to suspend its nuclear and long-range missile programs.
Pyongyang has dismissed the summit with its customary high-volume rhetoric, calling the gathering a "childish farce" and declaring that any denunciation of North Korea would be "a declaration of a war."
Another fraught nuclear issue is expected to come up during the sideline talks, which often produce the most consequential work of summits.
Obama is scheduled to talk with several world leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with whom he is expected to discussIran's nuclear program.
Neither North Korea nor Iran will take part in the meetings, and their nuclear programs are not on the agenda. North Korea has tested nuclear devices, and Iran has an active program to enrich uranium, which Iranian officials insist is solely for peaceful purposes. Obama and many other world leaders believe that Tehran is working toward an atomic weapon.
Administration officials say the president plans to discuss both countries in a policy speech Monday aimed at linking his work on nuclear security to his broader agenda.
"What the president's personal leadership and investment in a nuclear agenda has done is allow the world to come together behind common approaches, to apply pressure on countries that break the rules, and to provide incentives for countries to do the right thing," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. "And that's what we're going to continue to do in the instances of both Iran and North Korea."
Although the initiative was announced in 2009, the White House started its clock a year later, at the 2010 summit, and considers this the two-year checkpoint.
The issue underpinning the summit is not a slam dunk for the president. Most experts praise the White House for giving momentum to the nuclear security issue, but they also note that the initiative remains far from its goal.
Weapons-grade nuclear material still sits in hundreds of buildings around the world, some without armed guards, regular inspections or a clear capability to deal with theft. Although countries such as Pakistan and Russia have made steps toward better protection, gaps in security and volatile political climates remain. Many of the recent improvements in security around the world have been voluntary, without enforcement or a clear standard for what security means.
The four-year effort is making real progress, said Matthew Bunn, an associate professor and expert on nuclear security at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, "but it will certainly not be able to say at the end of four years that all the material is secure and accounted for."
"It's patchwork," said Kenneth Luongo, a nuclear security expert and the founder of the Partnership for Global Security, whose organization counts 18 confirmed cases of theft or loss of nuclear material in the last 20 years. "The requirements at the national level don't meet up with the international requirements, and so we have gaps. And what terrorists do, much like they did on9/11, is exploit gaps in security."
Roughly 80% of the commitments made at the 2010 summit — which vary from playing host to a conference to removing all highly enriched uranium from a country's border — have been completed, according to a review conducted by the Arms Control Assn. and the Partnership for Global Security.
The White House says it is proud of that record, although it does not mention that the U.S. is among those countries that hasn't finished its homework. Ratification of two nuclear security treaties remains tied up in Congress.
Experts also note that Obama's 2013 budget proposal seeks to trim funds for two agencies considered crucial to the international effort.
Obama sought a 6% cut to the agency that helps convert highly enriched uranium to a less dangerous form or removes it altogether from sites deemed unsafe. The budget seeks a 45% cut to the program that seeks to improve security at sites and governments' ability to track smugglers.
"Cuts to those programs will slow down the progress for securing nuclear material. There's just no way around that," said William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center.
An administration official defended the cuts, saying they reflected the completion of some activities and a "declining budget environment overall."
Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction at the National Security Council, said, "I would certainly not suggest that any changes in the resourcing in any way reflect any changes in our commitments or our capabilities."