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Can We Live In a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge

After being stricken by war and poverty, my grandfather immigrated from South Korea, which was decimated by Korean aggression decades ago. Like immigrants from ruined states, my grandfather traveled to the beacon of his remaining hope: the United States.

When I became a teenager, my grandfather told me horrific stories of his famished family relying on boiled cabbages scavenged from the ground for food. He told me the smell of smoldering rubber made him nauseous, and the sight of how insects scattering across the floor made it difficult to sleep. He said the worst part was the North Korean helicopters patrolling his desecrated home.

That memory of my grandfather solemnly describing his unforgettable hunger still resonates with me today. Detailing how North Korea has doubled its nuclear arsenal and ignored denuclearization calls, a New York Times article reaffirms North Korea’s persistent crusade for international dominance. Yet, instead of using the bombs that destroyed my grandfather’s food supply, North Korea now wields and relies on nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s ability to target South Korea through short-range missiles provokes imperative questions. Was the pain my grandfather felt as a result of North Korean belligerence a relic of the past or the beginning of what my generation has to overcome? Will diplomatic leadership or the nuclear launch codes bring the ultimate defeat of such a despicable state? And, most importantly, is a nuclear-weapons-free world achievable?

In an ideal world, all nine countries would get rid of their nuclear weapons, and the threat of nuclear fallout would cease. However, while an admirable and worthwhile goal for future generations, enforcing an international ban, with presumably the United Nations as the enforcer, is impossible. 

A more sensible and realistic goal is to dramatically reduce the nuclear arsenal of all nine countries, which would hopefully lead to total disarmament in the coming centuries. While nuclear weapons present the greatest threat to humanity’s security, nuclear disarmament cannot and should not be pursued because the possibility of one nation having nukes is far more dangerous than nine nations having nukes. 

The main reason why nuclear disarmament is nothing more than an idealistic wish is because of the distrust and animosity for each other in the international community. The idea that one nation, whether it be the United States or North Korea, has nukes and the rest of the 194 nations does not have nuclear deterrents presents an unforeseeably precarious international community. 

Even if that one nation were the United States, the rest of the community would scramble to find methods to counteract the United States’ nuclear weapons because they do not trust the United States’ nuclear weapons would preserve their national security or interests. A National Academic Press textbook called The Future of US Nuclear Weapons similarly argued that national defense is a fundamental aspect of individual state sovereignty and that nuclear disarmament is not achievable without national security interests being assured.

On January 22, 2021, a United Nations treaty, signed by at least 50 nations, banned countries from “producing, testing, acquiring, possessing or stockpiling nuclear weapons.” However, among the 50 nations that ratified the treaty, not a single one wielded a nuclear arsenal. If the United States, one of the most powerful nations in the history of humanity, does not have faith in an internationally enforced nuclear ban, why should rogue, unstable third-world regimes like North Korea and Iran follow suit? More importantly, if the United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom, India, Israel, and France disarm their nuclear weapons, how can they ensure that North Korea or Iran would abandon their nuclear weapons as well? 

Even if those two nations disarm their nuclear weapons and extend an olive branch, the international community has no assurance the countries will not resume their nuclear testing programs like Iran did after the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. To add insult to injury, the only leverage North Korea has over the rest of the world is its preexisting nuclear weapons. According to the Heritage Foundation, North Korean leaders cling to nuclear weapons for regime survival, which means the only diplomatic inducement that could reduce North Korea’s nuclear weapons is one that further legitimizes their dictatorship. 

To address a counterargument, Michael O’Hanlon, the Foreign Policy director of research at the Brookings Institution, wrote that a United States-led global coalition could pressure Iran and North Korea into reducing their nuclear weapons programs by taking the moral high ground through reducing our nuclear weapons. Yet, Iran and North Korea do not seem to care when we take the moral high ground with state-sponsored terrorism, genocide, mass starvation, eugenics campaigns, and slavery. Ethics and personal morals will not be the ultimate reason as to why North Korea and Iran abandoned their nuclear arsenal; it will be inducements that further legitimize and ensure their preexisting government. 

While complete disarmament is unachievable, the reduction of nuclear arms is a worthwhile goal and should take place right now. According to the Arms Control Association, in the past five decades, the United States and Russia have entered into eight bilateral agreements that dramatically reduced nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. The eight agreements have resulted in the destruction of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads by both countries, proving that both countries wish for a more peaceful world. 

Understandably, the proposal for complete nuclear disarmament is appealing, but the proposal is simply not achievable as long as ruinous states depend on nuclear weapons for preserving their sovereignty. If one nation is the sole bearer of nuclear weapons, then that bearer would hold humanity’s annihilation as leverage for advancing their interests.

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