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Editorial: Starting nuclear disarmament afresh on the NPT's 50th anniversary

The Cuban Missile Crisis that began between the United States and the Soviet Union in October 1962 pushed the entire world to the brink of nuclear war.

The crisis kicked off when it emerged that the Soviet Union had begun building missile bases in communist Cuba, a Soviet ally, prompting Washington to threaten air strikes, and even suggest the use of a nuclear weapon depending on how the situation unfolded.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy managed to weather the standoff by imposing a naval blockade, impeding Soviet vessels from carrying missiles into Cuba. Yet he also gave mission orders to nuclear-armed bombers, which they would carry out in case of certain contingencies.

His brother and then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy later recalled with some irony how U.S. military leaders talked about and even demanded the use of the nuclear arsenal. "These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor ... If we ... do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong," Robert quoted his brother as saying in his book, "Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis."

If there had been a nuclear exchange between the two atomic superpowers, the world would have been annihilated. This horrific certainty, gained through the heart-stopping tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is what prompted the conclusion of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), at the behest of Washington and Moscow no less.

The NPT limits legal possession of nuclear arms to five nations -- the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia. Those five nuclear-haves are required to engage in nuclear disarmament talks, which can be said to be the starting point for the drive to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

This year, the NPT marks the 50th anniversary of its entry into force on March 5. Yet, the current state of the world makes us feel as if we are back in the Cold War.

The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 awakened the world to the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, for their sheer lethal force and the horrendous aftereffects they inflict. However, the terror planted by these atomic bombs, instead of inspiring solemn vows never to build another, rather drove the world into a nuclear arms race.

The number of nuclear warheads continued to swell worldwide even after the NPT went into effect, topping 70,000 in 1986 -- enough to completely annihilate humankind dozens of times over. Furthermore, the nuclear club has added new members: Israel, India and Pakistan, while North Korea is developing bombs as well.

The number of nuclear warheads eventually fell to around 14,500, thanks to the conclusion of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by Washington and Moscow at the sunset of the Cold War.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration scrapped the INF after accusing Russia of breaching the treaty. Talks on a disarmament treaty to replace the New START -- set to expire in 2021 -- are also in limbo.

The major problem is that the U.S. and Russia, which between them possess the lion's share of the world's atomic weapons, are beefing up their nuclear strategies even further.

Russia has deployed advanced nuclear weapons including those carried on a hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile reportedly capable of penetrating the U.S. missile defense shield.

The U.S., meanwhile, has deployed at least one low-yield nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile submarine. Russia is also said to have a low-yield "tactical" nuclear arsenal. The limited damage a low-yield nuclear warhead can cause is feared to lower the hurdles for using it, potentially raising the risk of nuclear warfare.

Talks between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter's nuclear program are stalled, while Iran has resumed its nuclear development. Turkey has suggested it could acquire nuclear arms in the future, sparking controversy. Threats posed by nuclear weapons are increasing globally.

One is tempted to question why these countries are trying to develop and possess nuclear arms at all. Their reasons may vary, from reinforcing their nuclear deterrent to making atomic weaponry a bargaining chip. But do they truly want these weapons to use them?

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have ever been used in war, either between major powers or by a major power against a minor power. The inhumanity of atomic weapons has apparently morally shackled leaders of nuclear powers and stopped them from resorting to the red button.

While the U.S. has been modernizing its nuclear forces, some in the country are calling for reinforcing American deterrence with conventional weapons. The latter strategy can, if nothing else, encourage nuclear disarmament.

The idea that nuclear powers, complacent with their NPT privileges, can modernize their atomic arsenals without pursuing disarmament, while at the same time insisting that no other nation can get the bomb, is nothing but egotism.

The NPT Review Conference, held every five years to check on the implementation of nuclear disarmament, is set for April-May 2020. August also marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The year 2020 inevitably reminds us once more of issues posed by nuclear weapons.

As the world's only nation to have suffered atomic attacks in war, Japan has advocated for the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons. However, it has turned its back on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted at the United Nations in 2017.

Following the expiration of the INF Treaty, the U.S. is said to be seeking to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Asia. Japan may become a candidate site for the deployment, as Washington eyes the "China threat."

In this milestone year, it is of great significance for Japan to urge nuclear disarmament and strive to re-establish the nonproliferation framework. Above all, it is important to persuade the U.S. to join those efforts, so that we never again see a nuclear arms race.

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