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South Korea’s Moment to Shine

by Scott A. Snyder
April 16, 2010

My colleague Sheila Smith wrote earlier this week in the International Herald Tribune that Japan, specializing on its nonproliferation credentials and interests, missed an opportunity to shine at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit.  Instead, it seems that South Korean president Lee Myung-bak stole the limelight, first by gaining media coverage both through an exclusive interview and front page photo at the summit with Obama in the Washington Post, then by having South Korea named as the country that would host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012.

This development was a nice save for Lee, who has faced a rough few weeks at home as a result of domestic criticism of his government’s slow response and inadequate crisis management capacity in the aftermath of the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette on patrol near a disputed maritime zone with North Korea.  The families of over 46 victims have been waiting for over three weeks for the bodies of their loved ones as South Korea retrieves the two main pieces of the boat and conducts an investigation into the cause of the sinking.  The investigatory team includes international representatives from the United States, Australia and the UK.  In light of suspicions that a North Korean torpedo or mine might be the cause of the accident, including international investigators enhances the credibility of the findings and provides a stronger basis for the South Korean government to respond effectively to the result of the investigation.

South Korea’s selection to host the next Nuclear Security Summit has proven to be an inspired choice both because it reaffirms U.S. confidence in South Korea and indirectly singles out North Korea as a leading potential proliferator (along with Iran) not invited to the summit.  Lee Myung-bak was quick to utilize the hosting of the summit as an opportunity to point at North Korea, stating that an invitation to Pyongyang would be forthcoming only if the North reaffirms its commitments to denuclearization and the Six Party Talks, declaring that “If we can achieve substantial results through such peaceful dialogue, then of course we will be welcoming North Korea to take part in subsequent meetings, and we hope that will happen.”

South Korea’s selection as host of the next Nuclear Security Summit will also raise the stakes for South Korea to emphasize its good nuclear safety record as a nuclear energy producer, and to underscore its commitment to nuclear safety and safeguards as it emerges as the world’s sixth nuclear energy exporter, following the selection in December 2009 of a South Korean consortium to build nuclear reactors in the UAE.  It also nicely frames the upcoming U.S.-ROK negotiations over a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement by emphasizing the importance of effective control over fissile materials, including the need to jointly address the shared challenge of how to responsibly store nuclear waste from nuclear reactors.

The hosting of the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 will provide another opportunity in support of Lee’s theme of a “global Korea,” following South Korea’s hosting of the G-20 in November of this year and Seoul’s hosting of the third High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011.  As a result, South Korea has a tremendous opportunity to provide stewardship on global issues in accord with its aspirations to step onto the global stage.

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