Second, the external threats facing South Africa changed considerably. The Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Cuban troops withdrew from Angola. De Klerk said he faced some pressure to maintain the nuclear program, into which the government had poured $250 million, from South African defense officials, who argued that “you shouldn’t give away something you have already.” But “even if you were a supporter of having nuclear weapons,” he noted, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, “the rationale for that fell away” in South Africa.
Third, South Africa was in the midst of an internal political transition. De Klerk, who is white, was negotiating an end to apartheid and a transition of power to Nelson Mandela, and he was determined to end South Africa’s pariah status as part of that campaign. One way to “achieve re-acceptance in the international community would have been to take [the] initiative, without any pressure from outside, to bring [the nuclear] program to an end,” he explained. (De Klerk denied that, as The New York Times reported in 1993, his government was also moved “by a desire to prevent [South Africa’s] atomic weapons from someday falling into the hands of a black government.” “It was not part of my motivation,” he said.)
The former South African leader agrees that Kim Jong Un does not share his personal misgivings about nuclear weapons, but “the lesson we’ve learned in South Africa, in a wider context apart from nuclear weapons, is that only through negotiation, only if enemies or opponents talk to each other, can peace be achieved, can a new dispensation be agreed upon,” he told me. The United States and its allies have tried beating North Korea with a whole bunch of sticks over the years, he observed. And while sticks have their place, he wondered whether a more enticing carrot could be designed—a peace treaty between North and South Korea, for example—that could dramatically alter the North’s perception of external threats and internal calculus about the value of engaging with other countries.
While South Africa didn’t confront much international pressure over its nuclear program (the program’s existence was long suspected in foreign capitals, but not confirmed), it did face an array of sanctions over apartheid. And from that experience, de Klerk learned one other lesson about ending a problematic policy. The “inner conviction” of a country’s leaders “weighs heavier on the scale than international pressure,” he told me.
“When a country’s determination to have nuclear weapons is driven by its perception of a powerful threat to its security,” measures such as economic sanctions have little impact “until those security threats are diminished,” the nuclear nonproliferation expert Frank Pabian wrote in his study of South Africa’s nuclear program. “The South Africa case demonstrates the difficulty of preventing proliferation in a state that, having once acquired the requisite fissile materials, is committed to producing nuclear weapons.”