- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

With unpredictable and nuclear-armed North Korea on everyone’s mind, South Korea will host a nuclear security summit beginning Monday that will draw the most foreign leaders ever to visit the country.

More than 40 heads of state, including President Obama and the leaders of China and Russia, will gather in Seoul, primarily to discuss ways to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear material. The denuclearization of North Korea isn’t expected to appear on the official agenda, but it’s likely to be discussed extensively as leaders huddle in sideline meetings.

“The Obama administration wants to focus primarily on nuclear security,” said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But South Korea will be trying to use this summit indirectly to put pressure on North Korea.”

North Korean tensions

Concern about North Korea’s belligerence is as high as ever, with inexperienced Kim Jong-un taking the leadership role late last year and Pyongyang’s announcement that it will launch a satellite into space in mid-April on a long-range rocket.

The Obama administration, which had just reached an agreement with North Korea to suspend nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launches in exchange for food aid, has called the launch announcement “highly provocative.”

Both Japan and the U.S. said a launch using ballistic missile technology would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said there are other international forums, particularly six-party talks, for dealing with North Korea.

But he said the discussion on nuclear security in Seoul should send a message to Pyongyang that “the international community supports peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

North Korea has labeled the summit an “unsavory burlesque” that is intended to justify an atomic attack.

A broader focus

The White House insists that the summit in North Korea’s backyard will focus on a host of international nuclear proliferation issues, although Pyongyang’s absence will demonstrate its decision to continue its nuclear program despite severe international sanctions.

“The Nuclear Security Summit is not about North Korea,” Danny Russell told reporters Tuesday. “It is about the challenges of securing fissile material. It’s about the commitment of the participating nations to honor their pledges and their commitments, and it’s about the emerging role of the Republic of Korea as a significant contributor to the global good. North Korea will be the odd man out. “

The international community also is grappling with the immediate threat of how to resolve peacefully the subject of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the summit will also provide an opportunity for Mr. Obama to continue to push for more international pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Earlier this week, Russia and China joined the U.N. Security Council in voicing support for Arab League envoy Kofi Anna’s bid to end violence that has brought Syria to the brink of war. Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions condemning Mr. Assad’s assault on demonstrators.

The president’s agenda

Sunday afternoon, the president plans to meet with the prime minister of Turkey to discuss a range of topics, including U.S. support for political and economic reform throughout the Middle East and Africa and the ability to consult on Iran.

On Monday morning, Mr. Obama will deliver a speech at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, outlining his goals for the nuclear summit. Afterward, he will meet with Russian President Medvedev - his final meeting with Mr. Medvedev before he leaves power in May - and separately with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Mr. Obama also intends to use the visit, his third to South Korea, for a Sunday photo-op trip to the demilitarized zone separating the two countries. Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has visited the DMZ; Mr. Obama didn’t venture there during his first two trips.

“The visit itself is a demonstration of the president’s gratitude for the service of the Americans on the peninsula, and his personal investment in this alliance, and his personal commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea,” Ben Rhodes, a White House national security adviser, told reporters ahead of the trip.

The host’s big stage

Against that backdrop, South Korea President Lee Myung-bak will host the summit that serves as the final international highlight of his five-year term, which ends next February. Mr. Lee has made South Korea’s emerging international prominence a focus of his administration, and has maintained a close relationship with Mr. Obama.

“It’s clearly another feather in the cap of a South Korean president who talked about global Korea,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council under the second President Bush. “He hosted the G-20, won the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and now is hosting the nuclear summit. They are three very clear benchmarks for his view that Korea should be more global and should not simply be wrapped around the axle about North Korea.”

Mr. Cha, chairman of the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Lee’s success on the international stage stands in contrast to his status as a lame-duck leader at home.

“Generally his reputation and the reputation of Korea internationally is quite high,” Mr. Cha said. “Unfortunately within Korea, it’s the complete opposite. He gets no credit for any of this stuff, and he’s terribly unpopular inside of his country.”

Fukushima’s impact

While the summit’s focus is preventing terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear weapons, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, also looms large over the conference. It’s a delicate balance for the South Koreans, who are a major exporter of nuclear reactors for commercial use.

But the opposition party is campaigning in parliamentary elections this spring on a platform of shifting away from nuclear power.

There are 23 nuclear reactors at four plants in South Korea, generating nearly one-third of the nation’s electricity. A South Korean consortium recently won a $20 billion contract to supply four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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