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."
Obama said North Korea's April plans will jeopardize any future Western food aid because one crucial condition is the aid doesn't in Obama's words, "serve elites in that country or their military." The fat of food shipments can't be monitored, Obama said, during "a period of tension and friction." A ballistic missile test, he said, would constitute a "missed opportunity."
"They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded," Obama said, referring to the North Korean dictatorship now led by Kim Jong-un.
Obama also called North Korea "the most isolated county in the world" and that isolation deepens its own economic privation. "Every time North Korea has violated international resolution, a Security Council resolution, it's resulted in further isolation, tightening of sanctions."
As with Iran, Obama's remarks were tougher only by degrees from assessments of that nation and his approach to negotiations back at the first Nuclear Security Summit. "It's fair to say that North Korea has chosen a path of severe isolation that has been extremely damaging to its people and that it is our hope that as press builds….we will see a change of behavior," Obama said on April 13, 2010.
As to the summit itself, it can claim advances unrelated to Iran and North Korea. Ukraine has removed all highly enriched uranium or transferred it to a lower grade form of uranium suitable for energy purposes. Ukraine made that commitment at the 2010 summit. Also, the U.S. and Russia have ratified the new nuclear weapons reduction treaty known as New START. That treaty was pending at the 2010 summit. Since ratification, 18 inspections of U.S. and Russian nuclear facilities have occurred and each nation has voluntarily submitted to exhibitions of weapons delivery systems. The Russians allowed checks of its RS-24 mobile ICBM and the U.S. gave Russia access to B1-B bombers. In addition, Chile has given up its weapons-graade nuclear materials. Mexico agreed to do the same at the 2010 summit.
"It's a preview of things to come," Obama said Sunday, referring to Ukraine's actions. "I believe it's a preview of progress we're going to see over the next you days in confronting one of the most urgent challenges of global security."
The summit may well produce other non-proliferation break-throughs. But no one in Washington, Asia or Europe lays awake at night wondering about nuclear materials in Chile or Mexico. Concerns about Ukraine's supplies were stark but are now under control. U.S. and Russian talks on nuclear weapons have been peaceful for decades and fell into largely technical arcana after the end of the Cold War.
The biggest threats are Iran and North Korea. And whatever progress occurs dealing with either or both will be achieved at the margins of the summit--in Obama's private meetings with Medvedev, Hu and other world leaders.
The true test of the summit's success, then, won't be found in the communique or semi-flashy commitments from nations at the low-end of nuclear instability, but in the signals from Russia and China, which may or may not be announced, about what comes next with North Korea or Iran.