A nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council usually merits a brief media notice and assignment of some additional staff at that country's Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Yet this time around, however, there is at least a possibility that the confluence of North Korea's test of a nuclear device and South Africa's virtually unanimous election to the Security Council could add up to much more. The country's political history puts it in a unique position to make a constructive contribution to the most pressing international security challenge today.
South Africa is one of only four nations to give up nuclear weapons voluntarily (the other three were former Soviet republics that inherited nuclear weapons following the break-up of the Soviet Union) and represents an intriguing precedent for a country foregoing nuclear weapons of its own volition.
South Africa's 1990 decision, as the apartheid era began to draw to a close and the threat from Soviet proxies receded, was in part due to the realization that its tiny nuclear stockpile conferred no real strategic advantage. Where, precisely, could these weapons ever be used-and for what purpose?
Entering its political transition, South Africa's leadership was also reaching out for new respect-and respectability-in the international system, after decades on the receiving end of boycotts, sanctions, and expulsions from a growing list of world institutions. The country's renunciation of nuclear weapons was an important element of South Africa's new push for international legitimacy. Now, however, its earlier decision to forego the nuclear option could well confer unusual moral leadership in Security Council deliberations over the next two years-precisely the period that may be crucial for the United Nations as it confronts the North Korean nuclear challenge.
While South Africa brings to the table its unique experience, the North Korean case differs in important respects, however. As in the case of apartheid-era South Africa, in many respects the internal and external behavior of the North Korean regime represents an affront to the international community. Its nuclear test was the culmination of a concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons that has involved withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and now, a nuclear test. All of this was occurring while the international community through institutions such as the World Food Program fed up to one-third of the population of this otherwise destitute country that lost perhaps one million people to famine in the 1990s.
Internally there are no institutions autonomous from the state-no political organizations, no unions, no churches-there is far less political "space" in North Korea for residents to question the wisdom of government policy than existed even in the darkest days of apartheid. And although North Korea's nuclear device confers no real strategic value at present, the North Korean government regards the possession of nuclear weapons as essential for its political and military survival.
Moreover, while North Korea, like apartheid-era South Africa, craves respect, the North Korean regime fears opening to the world in stark contrast to the South African experience where the isolation of cultural boycotts stung and represented an ongoing source of popular discontent. In the case of South Africa, greater interaction with the world community could be "sold" politically to the citizenry; if anything, such engagement is an anathema for North Korean policymakers.
In an effort to put the genie back into the lamp, the United Nations has responded to the nuclear test with the imposition of economic sanctions on North Korea. It goes without saying that South Africa has some experience with being on the receiving end of such actions. However, the limited sanctions passed the UN Security Council alone are unlikely to alter North Korean behavior with respect to its core political goals.
If the North Korean nuclear breakout is to be resolved, the North Korean regime will have to be convinced that there is an alternative and more promising path than the one that they are on, involving positive rewards and not only negative punishments. South Africa, during its next two years in the center court, has a chance to help lead North Korea back into the world community-and out of a self-imposed wilderness-both by explaining its own history of gaining respectability by surrendering an asset of dubious value and by contributing to a concerted effort to offer a tangible way home for North Korea's despotic, cornered, and increasingly isolated regime.
Make no mistake-we are on a very bad trajectory. North Korea appears determined to develop nuclear weapons. The world community appears unwilling to provide sufficient punishment or inducements to alter North Korean behavior. Two years from now, when South Africa ends its term on the UN Security Council, unless we formulate a more effective approach, the North Korean people are likely to be worse off, and the world is likely to have acquiesced in North Korea being a nuclear power with potentially catastrophic implications.