North Korean president Kim Jong Un may be recorded in world history as the second man behind a nation’s decision to break up its nuclear weapons voluntarily. The first was former South African president and Nobel Peace laureate FW de Klerk.
As the world fixes its eyes on the Korean peninsula, watching for signs that Kim’s commitment to denuclearisation made in June was genuine, De Klerk is not naive about the path the isolated nation has to walk.
“If North Korea is, indeed, serious about dismantling its weapons the process — under international supervision — would be relatively simple,” De Klerk said in a written response to Established Africa’s questions. “However, it remains to be seen if North Korea is really serious about getting rid of its nuclear weapons.”
With the trauma caused by the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs still etched in the memories of elderly Japanese citizens, and the radioactive aftermath that haunted the generations that followed them, it is difficult to rationalise the need for any nation to hold nuclear weapons. Yet such reasons have been created.
In South Africa in the 1970s that reason was national security in the face of the growing threat of expansion by the now defunct Soviet Union in southern Africa. The apartheid regime developed its nuclear programme in secret at Pelindaba, west of Pretoria. De Klerk, 82, first became aware of the programme when he became minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs in the early 1980s, when the programme’s existence was revealed on a “strictly need-to-know basis”.
De Klerk never understood the purpose of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, he said. When he ascended to the presidency in 1989, abolishing the programme, along with the release of former president Nelson Mandela from political imprisonment, become his priority.
He did so under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1991, with the bombs disassembled under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Association. The weapons programme had reportedly already cost South Africa R210 million. By the time De Klerk made the decision to denuclearise, six weapons had been developed and one partially developed.
Under De Klerk’s administration, it became increasingly important for South Africa to become part of the international community, amid economic challenges and the threat of civil war, with domestic political tensions brewing.
“I believed that the initiatives that I intended to launch early in 1990, to commence negotiations on a new inclusive constitution for South Africa, would dramatically improve our relations with neighbouring states in southern Africa,” he said. “We also knew that signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would hasten our re-admittance to the international community.” This, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, meant the “retention of nuclear weapons simply made no sense”.
Today Pelindaba has made South Africa the world’s leading supplier of medical radioisotopes, used to diagnose and treat terminal illnesses, developed under the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation.
Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan also surrendered the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but unlike South Africa had no hand in the development of these weapons. Currently nine countries in the world, as of 2016, are believed to hold nuclear weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
North Korea, in the spotlight after its leader Kim entered into an agreement with US President Donald Trump to relinquish its nuclear power, has taken steps in the right direction, De Klerk said. But the key to the nation’s denuclearisation could also lie in its ability to resolves its domestic problems, rather than in its foreign affairs policy.
The dynastic rule of the Kim family in North Korea has been fraught with economic weakness and human rights abuses. In South Africa, ironing out domestic challenges and extending “genuine democratic constitutional rights to all South Africans” was critical in achieving stability, De Klerk said.
Ultimately the lesson was, however, that political problems are seldom solved by military force. For North Korea it would be no different.
“True security lies in resolving problems through the give and take of negotiations within the framework of the rule of law,” said De Klerk.