Giving Up Nuclear Weapons: It's Rare, But It's Happened : Parallels President Trump is calling on North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. History suggests that's unlikely. Only one country has built its own nukes, and then given them up.

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

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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.


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.


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.

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