South Africa's former president Frederik Willem de Klerk arrives at a news conference one day ahead of the 13th World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Warsaw Oct. 20, 2013.
South Africa's former president Frederik Willem de Klerk arrives at a news conference one day ahead of the 13th World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Warsaw Oct. 20, 2013.

VOA's Korean Service reporter Kim Young-nam spoke to former South African President F.W. de Klerk on Friday about the denuclearization process for North Korea and how it might compare to that of South Africa. As president of South Africa, de Klerk ordered the end of the country's nuclear weapons program and oversaw its nuclear disarmament process.

Q: Under your presidency (1989-94), South Africa was able to successfully denuclearize. Often times, the North Korean case is compared with the South African model since South Africa was the only country who actually had nuclear weapons and decided to dismantle. I would like to ask how difficult or how long do you think it will take for the international community to denuclearize North Korea.

A: The circumstances in South Africa in 1989 and in North Korea now are entirely different. The threat to South Africa that had led us to develop nuclear weapons had disappeared as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, the successful independence process in Namibia, and our own initiatives to resolve our problems through democratic negotiations. Also, the South African government, which then represented the minority communities, was a functioning democracy with regular elections, an effective parliament and independent courts. 

Our main challenge at that time was to extend non-racial democracy to all our people. We had a clear interest in dismantling our nuclear capability because of its expense and because we wished to rejoin the international community as quickly as possible.

I do not think that the situation in North Korea is at all the same. Kim Jong Un is a totalitarian dictator. His primary interest is in ensuring the continuation of his dynastic rule — and he views his nuclear weapons as a major bargaining chip in this process. He also wants to end the sanctions that are crippling the North Korean economy. Accordingly, I think it is unlikely that he will dispense with his nuclear weapons unless he is absolutely sure that there will be no threat to his regime — but he will continue to negotiate with a view to the removal of all, or some, of the sanctions.

South African Deputy President F.W. de Klerk, righ
South African Deputy President F.W. de Klerk, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela pose with their Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medal and Diploma, in Oslo, December 10, 1993.

Q: South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons voluntarily and invited international inspectors for the verification. Do you believe it is possible to denuclearize and verify North Korea if Pyongyang is not willing to fully cooperate with the international community as South Africa did? Also there are many who are pessimistic that North will fully give up all weapons, do you have same concerns?  

A: It will be essential to involve the IAEA in any dismantling process — as South Africa did — to ensure that the destruction of all nuclear weapons and fissionable material is meticulously monitored and controlled. The test of North Korea's sincerity in dismantling its nuclear capability will depend on its willingness to submit to international controls. I do not think it will do so until it is completely certain that its long-term security and the interests of the dynasty have been secured.

Q: South Africa made the significant decision to denuclearize and I would like to ask the reasons for making such decision. Additionally, North Korea is asking for peace treaty or security assurances to be provided before it to denuclearize. Do you think North Korea will follow the similar path with South Africa that it will give up weapons when they don't believe their security is not threatened anymore or do you think they are just trying to buy time?

A: As pointed out above, we decided to dismantle our nuclear weapons because the threats that had led us to develop them had by 1989 disappeared. A major factor was the collapse of the Soviet Union — and our tripartite agreement with Angola and Cuba in 1988 on the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola. One must remember that as late as October 1987, our armed forces had been in direct conflict with Cuban and Soviet-led Angolan forces at the Battle of the Lomba River. The battle was probably the largest set-piece battle in Africa since World War II and resulted in the destruction of 93 Soviet-built tanks. The tripartite agreement opened the way to the implementation of the U.N. independence plan for Namibia in 1989 — and the resolution of another long-standing dispute between South Africa and the international community. I also believed that the constitutional negotiations that I planned to launch early in 1990 would resolve all of the tensions between South Africa and our neighboring states in southern Africa. Dispensing with nuclear weapons also helped to speed up our reintegration with the international community — and saved us the considerable expense involved in developing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the document
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the document that he and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un had signed at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island, June 12, 2018, in Singapore.

Q: What kind of recommendation would you give to both President Trump and Kim Jong Un as they are working on denuclearizing North Korea? Do you have any concerns of nuclear proliferation in Asia such as South Korea and Japan, if the international community accepts North Korea as de-facto nuclear state like India and Pakistan? Similarly, the U.S. tried to sanction and pressure India and Pakistan while they were building nuclear arsenals but their relationships with the U.S. improved, or hostility eased, once they fully developed nuclear programs.

A: I would advise those involved to give North Korea the security assurances that it requires and to spell out the enormous advantages of ending sanctions and reintegrating into the international economic community — in other words — following the same road that China and Vietnam took in recent decades to their enormous advantage.

The danger of nuclear proliferation in Asia will increase to the degree that the countries involved feel threatened by existing nuclear states and to the degree that they perceive that they might in future no longer enjoy the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Q: South Africa not only was able to denuclearize, but also improved its human rights situations. Do you believe that the international community will welcome North Korea if it denuclearizes, but still continue gross human rights violations in its country?

A: The immediate goal of the international community should be to ensure the elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat. It would be naive to imagine that North Korea will suddenly respect the full spectrum of human rights and freedoms. However, if it can be persuaded to follow the path of China and Vietnam there would be enormous improvements in the day-to-day lives of the North Korean people.

Q: Many African countries still have ties with North Korea and there have been multiple reports showing North Korean diplomats involved in smuggling of rhino horns and others in African nations, including South Africa, but often get away with their crimes as they have ties with them. Can you tell me why there are many African countries who are still close with North Korea and whether you have any concerns that North Koreans are getting money in Africa to use it for their regime and nuclear program? 

A: Unfortunately, I have very little information regarding North Korea's relations with African countries and am, therefore, not really in a position to reply to your question.