South Africa's Bomb

SOUTH Africa's disclosure that it built six nuclear bombs - and has since destroyed them - is a welcome counterpoint to North Korea's recent announcement that it intended to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Pretoria, which signed the treaty in 1991, has done something no other signatory has done. Not only is it working to comply with the letter of the treaty; it has unilaterally destroyed its small arsenal and dismantled the estimated $270 million program as well. President Frederick de Klerk has pledged to open facilities used in the program to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to verify the program's termination and account for the nuclear materials involved.

Pretoria's decision in 1989 to dismantle its program appears traceable to factors that highlight some of the conditions needed for an effective NPT regime.

1. An improved sense of regional military security. With the cold war's end, the former Soviet Union withdrew support from clients in the region. Pretoria felt it no longer needed a deterrent - one whose value may have lay less in the prospect of its direct use than in the prospect that the West would come to South Africa's defense to prevent its use.

2. A perception of economic benefits. Scrapping its program, and especially Wednesday's announcement, should enable the country to participate more fully in global high-technology and commercial nuclear trade.

3. A concern over proliferation. The African National Congress has renounced nuclear weapons and says it supports the NPT. But Pretoria was unwilling to take chances. The ANC has received support from Libya and North Korea, raising concerns about these countries' access to South Africa's weapons program when a majority government takes the reins.

More needs to be learned about South Africa's bomb project. Israel is suspected to have helped Pretoria, although both countries deny such links. Still, South Africa deserves gratitude for its decision. We hope South Africa's precedent will lead other nations to reassess their perceived need for nuclear arsenals.

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