Could North Korea follow apartheid South Africa's path to denuclearization?

As the apartheid era was coming to an end, the regime of F.W. de Klerk was looking for ways to end South Africa's status as a pariah state. So he got rid of South Africa's secret cache of nuclear weapons.

South Africa is the only country to have built nuclear weapons and then voluntarily given them up

South African President F.W. de Klerk and then-African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela hold up their medals and certificates after they were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid. (Scanfoto Scanfoto/Reuters)
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Nearly four decades ago, South Africa became the first — and remains the only — country to voluntarily dismantle a nuclear weapons program.

It was a political move. The country's then-apartheid president F.W. de Klerk saw it as the only way to foster peace with other countries.

"De Klerk … informed them [people familiar with the program] that the nuclear arsenal was going to be an obstacle to the political reforms he had in mind," Terence McNamee, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, told Day 6.

If North Korea agrees to dismantle its nuclear program after a scheduled summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week, it will be the second time a country has voluntarily done so.

Few are talking about the similarities between the two countries, however, McNamee wrote in a recent article for Foreign Policy.

"The story of how de Klerk ditched the apartheid regime's nuclear weapons has been strangely absent in the current frenzy of speculation on North Korea's nuclear intentions," he wrote.

National Party (NP) leader and former State President F.W. de Klerk announces his retirement from politics on Aug. 26, 1997. He was the last white president of South Africa. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

'Ultimate guarantor of white dominance'

South Africa's nuclear weapons program began in the 1950s and continued until de Klerk's presidency in 1989.

Despite claims by the government going into the '70s that the program was peaceful, the country had built six functioning nuclear weapons.

"The South African apartheid regime believed that it was vulnerable to a Soviet-backed invasion of its territory and, as such, it thought nuclear weapons could serve as a deterrent," McNamee said.

At the beginning of his presidency, it wasn't immediately clear that de Klerk — who shares a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela — would be a reformer.

"The nuclear weapons arsenal in South Africa was always viewed through the prism of regime survival," McNamee told Day 6. "These weapons were seen symbolically, if not practically, as the ultimate guarantor of white dominance and supremacy in South Africa."

But whether or not Kim Jong-un follows suit and agrees to dismantle his country's nuclear program will depend on whether or not he sees the program as vital to his country's livelihood.

"By getting rid of these nuclear weapons, you were, essentially signalling that you were prepared to give up power," McNamee explained.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

Become like Moldova?

McNamee isn't certain that the prospect of North Korea completely abandoning its nuclear weapons is strong.

There is one key difference between South Africa and North Korea's denuclearization prospects. Currently, nuclear weapons are Kim Jong-un's only currency.

"It's the only reason why people pay attention to North Korea. It's the only leverage that the Kim regime seems to be able to wield in terms of its diplomacy," he said.

If they lose their nuclear bargaining chip, North Korea could become like Moldova — an unassuming country with little power — and "nobody knows who the president of Moldova is," McNamee said.

According to McNamee, however, the hermit nation could come around if it sees benefits.

After South Africa destroyed their nuclear weapons, they signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That gained the African nation international stature the country hadn't held "since the end of the Second World War," McNamee said.

While it remains unclear whether Kim Jong-un will be a "closet reformer" like de Klerk, McNamee believes the allure of stature could be appealing to Kim Jong-un.

"If the regime senses that the nuclear weapons are not intrinsic to the survival of the regime, the prospects for denuclearization, of some kind, are strong," he said.


To hear the full interview with Terence McNamee, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.