South Africa's admission that it had developed six nuclear bombs before announcing its decision to scrap them is a stark reminder how easy it has become for aggressive or endangered nations to acquire these dread weapons of mass destruction. For years, Pretoria would neither deny nor confirm it had developed such capability -- an approach also followed by other putative nuclear powers that wish to deter or threaten their rivals.
Israel, India and Pakistan, adhering to this course, have long led the suspect list. But with South Africa only the sixth nation to acknowledge it had developed nuclear weaponry, the programs of North Korea, Iraq and Iran must be taken with utmost seriousness. Russia's ability to get control of Ukraine's huge arsenal also remains in doubt.
The official line from South Africa is that the end of the Cold War and of the old Soviet Union's support for black-ruled nations to its north has removed the prospect of an external attack. Pretoria's strategy had rested on the rather dubious premise that if it were in immediate danger it would explode a nuclear device and thereby force the United States to send in its troops to save it rather than allow a nuclear conflagration.
But with apartheid being dismantled and the African National Congress preparing to rule, another theory has surfaced -- namely, that the United States pressured South Africa to destroy its nuclear capability rather than allow it to fall into the hands of a potentially unfriendly black government.
Whatever its motivations, South Africa's decision is welcome. Its willingness to "come clean" on its past record could strengthen the beleaguered International Atomic Energy Agency at a moment when its inspection powers are being severely challenged by North Korea's threat to become the first nation ever to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- a move that should trigger Security Council sanctions despite foot-dragging by China.
The contrasting positions of South Africa and North Korea on the nuclear issue illustrate how the end of the Cold War has scrambled strategic calculations. South Africa under an ANC government would have relatively friendly neighbors. And as such it would have little or no need for a nuclear deterrent, just as the U.S., Britain and France today have much less reason to fear a pre-emptive strike from Moscow.
Communist North Korea, in contrast, remains locked in ideological struggle with capitalist South Korea. No longer able to count on Moscow and less sure of support from Beijing, the hard-line regime of Kim Il-sung has become the first government ever to announce withdrawal from the NPT, the key treaty to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. This being so, the Security Council should approve harsh sanctions against North Korea unless it changes course by permitting surprise visits by IAEA inspectors -- a precedent-setting development. Anything less would find the Security Council permitting nuclear insecurity to proliferate.