Barely a year passes without Warren Buffett reminding the 30,000 faithful at his Berkshire Hathaway AGM the thing he fears most is explosion of a nuclear device. Right now his concern is being rather widely shared.
This week’s edition of The Economist carries a mushroom cloud (complete with faces of Trump and Kim) warning “It could happen”. The publication dedicates five of its first nine editorial pages to explaining why the risk of a nuclear war is at its highest since the Soviet Empire imploded almost 30 years ago.
This coverage also features a futuristic article intended to warn of consequences that range from millions dead, a country obliterated, plunging stock markets and a global recession. It dates the war at March 2019.
Why such an alarmist report from the usually sober magazine?
In a nutshell, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is described as a desperate dictator with a hand hovering over the red nuclear button. And with an equally erratic occupant in the White House, the editors fear a massively destructive war could break out before any rational thought that in such an engagement, everyone loses.
Another sign of escalating tensions came over the weekend when the United Nations unanimously voted its strongest economic sanctions yet against North Korea. It has banned all of the country’s coal, seafood and iron ore exports, wiping off one third ($1bn) of its foreign revenues. For all the concern his actions have sparked, Kim’s economy is tiny – Americans spend twice as much on their pets as the entire North Korean GDP.
The news is a reminder of the very different path that was followed by South Africa. There is plenty of detail around this in a speech by Waldo Strumpf in Italy on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. Strumpf, former head of SA’s Atomic Energy Corporation, also offered some canny suggestions for those grappling today with the North Korean problem.
With so much revisionist history going around, it is often long forgotten that SA was the first and thus far only country to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapon capability. That was done within two months of FW de Klerk becoming president in September 1989 as one of the steps in moving the country towards democracy and reintegration with the world.
At that point, the country possessed six fully armed, gun-type nuclear bombs, the result of a programme instigated in 1978 as a deterrent against possible invasion by troops from Warsaw Pact countries. At that time, the Soviets had deployed 50,000 Cuban forces in Angola at the precise time the West abandoned all support of the Apartheid Government.
Strumpf says the nuclear weapons were always intended as a “deterrent” and the Government never intended for them to be used offensively. Their development was to show the rest of the world that SA possessed the capability to unleash this weapon of mass destruction. Its intention was to keep the Cubans in Angola and the rest of the world out of SA’s internal affairs.
There are strong parallels with Kim Jong Un’s stated strategy. Except that despite numerous opportunities, North Korea has chosen the opposite path to De Klerk.
In 1994 US President Bill Clinton offered Kim’s father and predecessor a massive aid package if he stopped producing the enriched uranium that is key to arming nuclear devices. Kim Jong Il took the money and then started cheating. Another attempt in 2005 had the same result.
It’s also worth remembering that De Klerk possessed a considerably greater nuclear “deterrent” than the Kims, yet willingly chose peace over potential destruction. Thus far, North Korea is very obviously looking in the other direction, causing the world to wait with bated breath as its neighbour China frets about the potential nuclear fallout and Donald Trump tweets up an angry storm.
In among all the gloom, there are rays of hope. De Klerk took the only rational decision he could after five years of debilitating financial sanctions were imposed in 1985 in the wake of his predecessor’s Rubicon Speech. After the unilateral sanctions imposed by the UN, the world is hoping that once again money does the talking.
But more relevant, perhaps, is the key suggestion Strumpf offered 22 years ago for exactly this kind of situation: “International pressure by a superpower can be helpful but only up to a point. Regional tensions must be resolved before non-proliferation can be achieved – it was so with South Africa and probably also in the Korean Peninsular.”
Wise words from a wise man whose contribution is now long forgotten. Hopefully someone starts to listen.