Giving Up Nuclear Weapons: It's Rare, But It's Happened

May 8, 2017
Originally published on May 8, 2017 7:16 pm

South Africa was filled with drama in 1993. Violence raged as the white president, F.W. de Klerk, negotiated with black leader Nelson Mandela to end apartheid.

Amid this uncertainty, de Klerk appeared on TV one night and made a startling announcement: South Africa secretly built six nuclear weapons, but had dismantled them and shut down the program, he said.

"Let us convince the world we are not playing games, that we have broken those bombs down, that we can account for every milli-milli-milligram of material in it — and that is exactly what we did," de Klerk said at a 2012 event in Washington, recalling his decision two decades earlier.

To this day, South Africa is the only country that's built its own nuclear weapons and then relinquished them. Three former Soviet republics — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — inherited nukes when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, and then gave them up.

President Trump is now calling for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, a step it says it will never take. History shows that countries are unlikely to give up their weapons unless there's a dramatic change in circumstances, as was the case in South Africa.

Visiting a nuclear plant

A week after de Klerk's 1993 announcement, his government invited a few reporters, including me, to a nuclear research center where the bombs were built in Pelindaba, outside the capital, Pretoria.

We put on protective clothing from head to toe and received a guided tour of the mostly deserted plant, though it still had sealed drums of waste along the walls. One worker said he and his colleagues constantly speculated on the nature of their work, but were never told the details.

De Klerk said the weapons were a deterrent never intended for actual use. The white rulers feared the Soviet Union was plotting with local black and communist groups to gain control of South Africa, with an eye on the country's vast gold and mineral wealth.

But when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, the Cold War was over and the Soviet threat was gone. The following year, de Klerk released Mandela from prison and opened negotiations with his African National Congress. At around the same time, de Klerk decided to scrap the nuclear weapons program. South Africa signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1991, but did not announce the dismantling of its weapons until two years later.

The nuclear weapons became "a millstone around the neck," he said.

South Africa's case was unique. With North Korea, neither threats nor diplomacy has worked. But does the South African example hold any lessons?

"Absolutely. No country has been compelled to give up its nuclear weapons. But countries have been convinced to do so. South Africa is the classic example," said Joe Cirincione, the head of the Ploughshares Fund, which works to eliminate nuclear weapons. The group has provided financial support to NPR in the past.

Few choices

There are no great options when it comes to North Korea, but Cirincione says the U.S. should push for negotiations.

"Coercion has failed. Everything we've tried, sanctions, military threats, etc., has only increased North Korea's desire to get the bomb," said Cirincione.

South Africa gave up its weapons when the threat went away. Dealing with such fears is sure to be part of the equation no matter how the U.S. addresses North Korea.

Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said North Korea fears a U.S. attack that would topple its ruler, Kim Jong Un, and that's what's driving its push for a long-range missile that could threaten the United States.

"I think the first order of business for the Trump administration is to find a way to halt further long-range ballistic missile testing and nuclear testing," Kimball said.

Many demands

In any talks, the North would make many demands that could include an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the withdrawal of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the South and a formal peace treaty between the two Koreas.

(The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, so the two sides have technically remained at war all this time.)

But even those deals might not be enough for North Korea to give up its nukes, which it sees as an invaluable deterrent in the face of its larger and more powerful rivals. And South Africa may never be the nuclear example that resonates with North Korea, Kimball said.

Ukraine relinquished its arsenal for a promise of security that didn't hold up. Russia seized and annexed Crimea in 2014 and has supported Ukrainian separatists in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Russia.

"Ukraine has not felt as though that bargain has been respected by Russia," Kimball said.

There's also the cautionary tale of a pair of dictators — Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi — who gave up their nuclear programs before acquiring a bomb. As Cirincione notes, that didn't save them.

"This is exactly, unfortunately, the lesson that Kim Jong Un has learned — that if you give up your weapons, America will kill you," Cirincione said.

Saddam was executed by Iraq after the U.S. invaded in 2003, toppling his regime and seizing him. Gadhafi was killed by rebels in 2011, after U.S. air strikes helped the opposition forces oust him. Observers say North Korea's Kim wants a nuclear arsenal so badly because he believes it'll protect him from suffering the same fate.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Trump has been demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. History suggests that's pretty unlikely. Only one country has ever built its own nukes and then given them up. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre covered that story when it happened.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: South Africa was filled with drama in 1993. Violence was raging as the white president, F.W. de Klerk, negotiated with Nelson Mandela to end apartheid. In the middle of all this, de Klerk appeared on TV one night and made a startling announcement. South Africa secretly built six nuclear weapons but had dismantled them and shut down the program. Here's de Klerk in 2012 explaining that decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F W DE KLERK: Let us convince the world that we are not playing games, that we have broken those bombs down, that we can account for every milli-milli-milli-milligram (ph) of material in it. And that is exactly what we did.

MYRE: Shortly after De Klerk's revelation, his government invited a few reporters - including me - to the place where those bombs were built, a nuclear center outside the capital Pretoria. We put on protective clothing from head to toe for a guided tour of the mostly deserted plant, though it still had sealed drums of waste along the walls.

Our guide said he and his colleagues constantly speculated on the nature of their work but were never told the details. De Klerk said the weapons were a deterrent, never intended for actual use. The white rulers feared the Soviet Union was plotting with local black and Communist groups to gain control of South Africa's vast gold and mineral wealth. But when the Cold War ended, those nukes became a liability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE KLERK: It's a millstone around the neck to have it. It was one of the reasons why we had growing isolation.

MYRE: South Africa's case was unique. With North Korea, neither threats, nor diplomacy has worked. But does the South African example hold any lessons?

JOE CIRINCIONE: Absolutely. No country has ever been compelled to give up its nuclear weapons but other countries have been convinced to do so. South Africa is the classic example.

MYRE: Joe Cirincione is head of the Ploughshares Fund, which works to eliminate nuclear weapons. The group has provided financial support to NPR in the past. There are no great options when it comes to North Korea, but he says the U.S. should still push for negotiations.

CIRINCIONE: Coercion has failed. Everything we've tried - sanctions, military threats, et cetera - has only increased North Korea's desire to get the bomb.

MYRE: South Africa gave up its weapons only after it felt a threat had gone away. It's not clear what it would take for North Korea to reach that point. Daryl Kimball, who leads the Arms Control Association, says North Korea's biggest fear is a U.S. attempt to topple its ruler, Kim Jong Un, and that's why it wants a missile that could reach the U.S.

DARYL KIMBALL: I think the first order of business for the Trump administration is to find a way to halt further long-range ballistic missile testing and nuclear testing.

MYRE: In any talks, the North would make many demands like an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the withdrawal of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the South, a formal peace treaty between the two Koreas but even that might not be enough.

South Africa may never be the nuclear example that resonates with North Korea. Consider a pair of dictators - Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Both gave up nuclear programs before acquiring a bomb. As Cirincione notes, that didn't save them.

CIRINCIONE: Well, this is exactly unfortunately the lesson that Kim Jong Un has learned, that if you give up your weapons, America will kill you. And so he says, no, we're not going to give up our nuclear weapons ever.

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.