SEOUL, March 27 — Japan steered off the agenda at the nuclear security summit today to hit out at North Korea’s plans for a rocket launch next month, as US President Barack Obama cautioned against complacency in dealing with the threat of nuclear terrorism.
North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programmes are not on the agenda at the summit in the South Korean capital, Seoul, and neither country was invited to the forum involving some 50 world leaders tasked with improving security at nuclear facilities.
The secretive North has been widely criticised on the sidelines of the meeting, including by main ally China, but host Seoul has explicitly stated Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction programmes were off the table during the summit itself.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda used his opening speech at the summit to say the international community strongly demands North Korea exercise self-restraint on next month’s planned rocket launch.
“The planned missile launch North Korea recently announced would go against the international community’s nuclear non-proliferation effort and violate UN Security Council resolutions,” Noda said.
No other major leaders mentioned North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or the ballistic missile launch, which Pyongyang says will carry a weather satellite into orbit. The West says the launch is a disguised test of a long-range missile designed to reach the American mainland.
North Korea said last week it would consider it a “provocation” if its “nuclear issue is placed on the agenda at the Seoul summit” and if any statement was issued against the North for pursuing such a programme.
Today, it said there was no reason to fire a missile after February’s agreement to suspend nuclear tests in return for food aid with the United States.
Obama has said the destitute North could be hit with tighter sanctions if it goes ahead with the rocket launch, but experts doubt China will back another UN Security Council resolution against it.
Obama told leaders the world was safer because of the steps taken to improve nuclear security, but warned that the threat of the wrong people getting hold of the materials to make a crude atomic bomb was real.
“Nuclear terrorism is one of the most urgent and serious threats to global security,” he said.
Critics say the summit is no more than a talking-shop, and that even after its mandate was extended to include safety after the Fukushima crisis in Japan last year, the next summit in the Netherlands could be the last.
But Obama, heralding the progress made in two years since the first such gathering of world leaders, which he hosted in Washington, said the “security of the world” depended on its success.
“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. That’s the reality that we face.”
Former Cold War adversaries have cooperated to lock down weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Some countries have agreed to remove all such material from their soil and poorer nations have received financial help to secure nuclear facilities.
“We’ve come a long way in a very short time, and that should encourage us (but) that should not lead us to complacency,” said Obama in an appeal for further collaboration.
“We all understand that no one nation can do this alone. This is one of those challenges in our interconnected world that can only be met when we work as an international community.”
The Seoul communique is expected to address issues such as minimising stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, safeguarding nuclear facilities, and prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials. But there are unlikely to be any firm figures or measurable commitments.
Miles Pomper of the Washington-based Centre for Non-proliferation Studies said the Seoul agenda was “underwhelming to say the least”.
“You got a lot of juice out of the process the first time because it was a new thing and Obama had just come off the Prague speech,” he said, referring to a 2009 address when he declared it was time to seek “a world without nuclear weapons”.
“There were a lot of things already in the pipeline, but now we’re losing momentum ... we (need to) start being more ambitious.”
Noda, representing a country mired in the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, also plans to tell the summit later today what Tokyo has learned from the Fukushima disaster.
An earthquake and tsunami last March knocked out external and on-site power supplies at the nuclear power plant, 240km northeast of Tokyo, causing the failure of cooling systems and triggering fuel meltdowns, radiation leaks and mass evacuations. — Reuters