North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear tests indicate that the nation’s nuclear-arms program is rapidly advancing, nearing the point at which Kim Jong Un can credibly claim to possess the means of nuking the United States. But they also demonstrate something else: No matter how many sanctions you impose, no matter how much you threaten fearsome displays of military power, it is very hard to convince a country to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons—especially when that country has progressed far enough to acquire those weapons, like North Korea has.
Only four countries in history have surrendered their nuclear weapons. And three of those countries—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—did so with nuclear arms that they inherited from the defunct Soviet Union, and didn’t have the wherewithal to control and maintain. (The decision to dispose of this weaponry, in exchange for support from the United States and security assurances from Russia, is still remarkable; had Ukraine and Kazakhstan kept the arsenals on their territory, they would have become the world’s third- and fourth-largest nuclear powers, respectively.)
Only South Africa has dismantled nuclear weapons that it constructed and controlled. In this sense, it is the closest analogue to what U.S. officials have in mind when they demand the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” I recently spoke with the man who made that singular move—the former South African President F.W. de Klerk—about why he decided to do what he did and what lessons his experience offers for how to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. (You can find a broader discussion of the historical precedents here.) Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.