Listen to the story.
Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. President Obama today urged China to do more to restrain North Korea's nuclear activities. Obama discussed the matter with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao in the South Korean capital, Seoul, but both are there to attend a nuclear security summit that's been overshadowed by North Korea's plans to launch a satellite next month. Miles Pomper of the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-proliferation Studies is in Seoul for the summit. He says the launch has the US and its allies worried.
Miles Pomper: It's not the satellite itself that's a concern in the west, it's that basically you know, I think it was John F. Kennedy that once said that the only difference between missiles and rockets is attitude. Once you've got the technology to launch space vehicles successfully and launch satellites, you basically have the same technology that's used for long range missiles.
Werman: So President Obama has appealed to China for help. What's China saying, what can China do?
Pomper: Well, China is North Korea's main supporter right now, basically the people who supply North Korea with its food, and fuel and so on, and so they have some leverage over North Korea, but they also have their own concerns. They don't want to undermine North Korea's security so much that it provokes a refugee crisis or eliminates what they see as a buffer zone with South Korea and South Korea's ally, the United States.
Werman: So President Obama had promised to make nonproliferation and de-nuclearization a priority of his administration when he came into office, kind of his signature if you will. Where does this conference stand in relationship to President Obama's goals?
Pomper: Well, in this conference as you said, it's particularly dedicated to the goal of securing all vulnerable missile materials by the end of 2013, and this is supposed to be sort of a halfway mark to judge how much progress has been made. The unfortunate thing is that the way that the administration has handled this, there's no benchmarks for judging whether that goal has been accomplished. There's no international standards right now what it'll mean to secure all materials for what you would define as vulnerable. So they're basically not gonna be able to tell whether they've achieved that goal or not, and I would say that in the opinion of most experts they're not going to achieve that goal.
Werman: So Miles, you follow nuclear proliferation around the world and as you know, North Korea has nukes, they say they have nukes. Iran doesn't have nukes, they say they want nukes. Which is the more dangerous of the two countries?
Pomper: I would say Iran is more dangerous just because fundamentally you know, North Korea is in much more of a defensive position and this is what's holding their regime together, both internally and externally, and it's unlikely that they're gonna carry out an aggressive military action. I mean I do worry about them potentially transferring material, which they've shown a propensity to do, whether it's missiles or whole nuclear power plants. The Iranians, I'm worried about instead their willingness to transfer to terrorists given their longstanding relationship with terrorists, and the fact as they move forward with their nuclear program you're gonna have some big effects throughout the region, other countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey could potentially feel that they need to move forward with their nuclear programs, nuclear weapons programs too.
Werman: Miles, just as a final question I wanted to ask you what your thoughts were on President Obama on an open microphone unbeknownst to him, told Russia's leader, Dimtry Medvedev, that Obama will be able to be more flexible on contentious issues like missile defense after the US presidential elections in November. What are your thoughts on that unusually frank comment?
Pomper: Well, I think, I'm sure that's accurate in terms of I guess the greatest sin in Washington is usually candor, and I don't think it's any secret that the issue of missile defense and these other issues are certainly gonna be contentious ones in the presidential election. On the other hand I wouldn't think the president has, you know, given the likely make-up of the senate and so on after the election, I'm not sure he's gonna have much more flexibility than he has right now because if you looked at the vote on the New Start Treaty there were a lot of restrictions put in there on missile defense, and that was not during an election year.
Werman: Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-proliferation Studies. He's in Seoul, South Korea, for the summit on international nuclear security. Miles, thanks a lot.
Pomper: Thank you.