President Obama knows the Nuclear Security Summit, now meeting for the second time in South Korea, is not specifically designed to tackle the world's most dire nuclear flash points--North Korea and Iran.
The summit's direct focus, and where it has achieved measurable success, is in reducing or securing loose nuclear materials or stockpiles of high enriched uranium that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
"It doesn't solve every problem. It doesn't address every issue," Obama said Sunday at a press conference in Seoul with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
That's true. But that is cold comfort to South Korea, which is hosting the summit in Seoul, and feels menaced and double-crossed since nuclear-armed North Korea announced plans to test fire a long-rang ballistic missile next month--after promising not to in exchange for Western food aid. And it doesn't calm Israel, either, as it weighs its intelligence on how close Iran might be to producing a nuclear weapon and what it might have to do militarily to stop it.
Obama delivered a stern message to North Korea, declaring a permanent end to bait-and-switch negotiations where Pyongyang pretends to negotiate concessions for western aid while clandestinely continuing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile schemes.
"There will be no more rewards for provocations," Obama said. "Those days are over. This is the choice before you. This is the decision you must make. And today we say, Pyongyang, have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the North Korean people."
If North Korea doesn't change course, Obama promised deeper isolation.
"You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads," Obama said. "It leads to more of the same—more broken dreams, more isolation and ever more distance between the people of North Korea and the dignity and opportunity they deserve."
Obama said now was also the time for Iran to comply with international demands to inspect its nuclear facilities and defuse rising fears it is close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also underscored the importance of his meetings with Russian President Demtri Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao "to achieve a resolution in which Iran fulfills its obligations."
"There is time to solve this diplomatically, but time is short," Obama said. "Iran’s leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it. Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands. Iran must meet its obligations."
Obama also said, as if it wasn't already clear, the future of international nonproliferation efforts hinge on the outcome of negotiations with Iran and North Korea - even though they on the sidelines of the summit.
"In the global response to Iran and North Korea’s intransigence, a new international norm is emerging," Obama said. "Treaties are binding. Rules will be enforced. And violations will have consequences. Because we refuse to consign ourselves to a future where more and more regimes possess the world’s most deadly weapons."
In Iran, access is necessary to determine how close the nation is to obtaining a deployable nuclear weapon. In North Korea, the issues are negotiating an agreement to produce no more nuclear weapons and, possibly, agree to dismantle those already made as part of a larger aid and trade package.
Both are difficult, and recent events frustrate Obama and the summit itself, which cannot seriously claim to advance global security if it fails to change the game in North Korea or Iran.
Obama also meets on Monday with Presidents Medvedev and Hu--sessions that could loom large in continued dealing with new events in North Korea and on-going international efforts to stave off war with Iran. Obama's meetings with top Chinese officials at the first Nuclear Security Summit two years ago in Washington produced a stronger Chinese commitment to new sanctions against Iran. Those sanctions have begun to bite into Iran's economic well-being and are a due to intensify this summer. Obama thought in 2010 that China's endorsement of sanctions would signal to Iran that it will only grow more isolated if it kept on its nuclear path. Obama's optimism then sounds not much different from his perspective now - a testament to continued effort but few tangible results in terms of different Iranian behavior.
"What sanctions do accomplish is to hopefully change the calculus of a country like Iran so that they see more costs and fewer benefits to pursuing a nuclear weapons program," Obama said at a post-summit press conference on April 13, 2010.
Obama's reliance on sanctions eventually changing Iranian behavior hasn't wavered. But he speaks with a bit more bluntness about the diminishing timeline for Iran to change course.
"I believe there is a window of time to resolve this question diplomatically, but that window is closing," Obama said Sunday following a bilateral meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. "It's absolutely critical for us to move forward in an effective way, in a serious way…to ensure that Iran abides by its international obligations."
Later, during the press conference with President Lee, Obama described Iran as an outlier "potentially pursuing nuclear weapons."
At his March 12 press conference, Obama said Iran must "come to the table in a clear and forthright way" to prove their nuclear efforts are peaceful and comply with international nonproliferation norms. "They know how to do that," Obama said. "This is not a mystery."
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