This week’s Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit was convened to address a specific and pressing problem: preventing terrorists from obtaining the materials they need to detonate atomic bombs in the Mall of the Americas, in Times Square or Red Square, at the Taj Mahal or at any other crowded and symbolic site the world over that demented ideologues might pick to make a strong impression.
Heading home after two days of talk and diplomacy, President Barack Obama summarized the summit’s gains: “It would not take much, just a handful or so of these materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and that’s not an exaggeration. There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials, and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”
The tragedy here is that such a smart guy concludes the two-day summit by stating what was obvious at the start.
The threat of nuclear terrorism is so pressing that, for illustrative purposes, consider it in the realm of “when” rather than in the domain of “if.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet’s Evil Empire and the catastrophic destruction of September 11, 2001, are all imprinted on the global consciousness. All three taken together conjure the terrifying and plausible specter of the complete obliteration of an area equivalent to Manhattan by a single criminal action.
The threat of nuclear terrorism is so pressing that, for illustrative purposes, consider it in the realm of “when” rather than in the domain of “if.” As pointed out in the 2010 Participant Media documentary Countdown to Zerø, assembling, positioning and triggering a terrorist-rigged nuclear weapon is well within the skill set of any criminal network capable of, for the sake of argument, hijacking four passenger airliners and crashing them into high-value targets. Think of an IED (improvised explosive device), but replace the pilfered artillery shell with a nuclear core.
A black-market trade in weapons-grade plutonium has been discovered flowing through the collapsed Soviet empire, and a relatively few perpetrators have been arrested—almost by accident. Nuclear materials have been notoriously easy pickings at poorly guarded research centers of the former USSR and from dumps of radioactive material in Kyrgyzstan, which provide easy access to major drugs- and weapons-smuggling routes connecting to Islamist fundamentalist movements.
But the “nuclear terror scare” scenario does not need to end badly. It is eminently preventable, if sufficient high-level international cooperation and resources are applied.
The Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit gathered 53 heads of state and four international organizations, including Interpol, to resolve three main issues:
- Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
- Protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
- Prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials
In short, the Seoul summit was convened to sew up the frayed safety net through which decommissioned bomb makings fall into the hands of criminal organizations.
Even the Republicans and Democrats of the United States, surely, could come to a consensus against allowing cataclysmic DIY raw materials to drop into the personal arsenals of psycho terrorists.
Tracking and rounding up explosive materials is, in essence, a policing measure. Surely, the combined intelligence agencies and military assets of Germany, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the USA, Interpol (not to mention those other 46 countries) could clamp off the criminal rings of nuclear buyers and sellers at their many necks. The goals of the summit, as announced, were perfectly reasonable aims—unless some distraction derailed the invited parties.
North Korea and Iraq are notable both for not being among the Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit faithful, and for dominating the rhetoric lobbed about by the assembled presidents and premiers.
Ten days prior to the summit, North Korea’s government announced plans to strap a satellite onto a ballistic missile and launch it into orbit. The launch, penciled in for some time between April 12 and 16, is meant to commemorate the 100th birthday of the isolated nation’s late Great Leader Kim Il-sung. North Korea claims to be exercising its natural right to conduct space exploration. The threatened launch is widely viewed as a dry run for an atomic-Armageddon delivery system.
Li Hong, head of China’s Arms Control and Disarmament Association, answered Pyongyang’s ploy with a voice of reason: “I think North Korea did this to overshadow our talks about nuclear security. We shouldn't fall for their trick.”
But the phantom satellite launch provided an opportunity for the Seoul Security Summit 2012’s most forward-thinking statesmen to veer into sidebar territory, an opportunity they could not let slide. Marshalling the will and means to separate nukes from terrorist lunatics was submerged in politically charged money quotes.
- President Barack Obama to North Korea: “I want to speak directly to the leadership in Pyongyang…. Know this—there will be no more rewards for provocations. Those days are over.”
- North Korea deemed any opposition to its nuclear program “a declaration of war.”
- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reserved the right to “thoroughly retaliate against North Korea.”
- A South Korean defense ministry spokesman: “We are preparing to track the missile's trajectory and shoot it down if it deviates from the planned route and falls into our territory.”
Aside from buzzing at North Korea like kicked hornets, the Summit’s high-level influencers chose to deliver elective messaging on Iran and Russia rather than stick to the core curriculum of nailing down free-floating fusion components.
- President Barack Obama to Iran: “Time is short. Iran’s leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it.”
- President Barack Obama on a live microphone to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: “Missile defense can be solved, but it's important for [Vladimir Putin] to give me space. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
- Medvedev replying to Obama: “I understand your message about space. I transmit this information to Vladimir.”
This Obama-Medvedev exchange, whether deliberately or inadvertently public, cued a pageant of election-year posturing in the U.S. media.
- Reince Priebus, Republican Party Chairman: “[Obama is] allowing his political career to dictate national security. Was he ever going to tell voters?”
- Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney: “President Obama needs to level with the American public about his real agenda” after his “revealing and unguarded moment.”
- Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee: “My colleagues and I will not allow any attempts to trade missile defense of the United States to Russia or any other country.”
Even the Republicans and Democrats of the United States, surely, could come to a consensus against allowing cataclysmic DIY raw materials to drop into the personal arsenals of psycho terrorists. This rare opportunity for bipartisan, and international, unity might come around again. But so long as key players deliver global-policy sound bites, rather than concentrate on resolving one truly manageable aspect of the gravest threat facing mankind since its inception, real progress will lose out to postured talk.
The 53 heads of state and the delegates from the United Nations and Interpol could learn something from any community activist who has set up a food pantry or cultivated an urban garden or tutored a kid, or lobbied for a stop sign at a dangerous intersection. Big, insolvable problems can be tackled and corrected—one manageable aspect at a time. It’s up to us to show the so-called men in charge what it means to knuckle down and achieve real-world results.