World's Most Popular Nuclear Treaty Went Into Effect 50 Years Ago Today, But These Countries Still Have Not Signed It

The world's most popular nuclear treaty went into effect 50 years ago, marking an unprecedented step in global arms control that has since witnessed major transformations with the emergence of non-signatory nuclear states and new technologies spurring renewed competition among major powers.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, was signed on July 1, 1968, and went into effect on March 5, 1970. It was later extended indefinitely in 1995, half a century after the United States conducted the first atomic attack in history against Japan during World War II, marking the beginning of the nuclear weapons era and the race for weapons of mass destruction that followed through the Cold War and beyond.

At its core, the NPT provides that non-nuclear states will not seek nuclear weapons and that nuclear states will eventually seek to disarm while helping non-nuclear states with civil nuclear technological purposes. The NPT nuclear states at the time of signing, and still today, are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The NPT has been adhered to by some 191 countries, more than any other non-proliferation or arms control treaty in history. Still, some of its few outliers have pursued and successfully developed nuclear weapons. Today, these nations include India, Pakistan, North Korea and, though officially neither confirmed nor denied, Israel.

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Giant cracks appear in the sun-baked ground May 20, 1998 in Pokhran, where India conducted nuclear bomb tests between May 11 and 14 of that year. Rival Pakistan conducted its first series of public tests shortly after. T.C. Malhotra/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Neither India nor Pakistan signed the NPT upon its introduction and the two neighboring rivals fought one of their several wars just a year after it went into effect. The two South Asian states have feuded for decades since their partition following independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 and their long-running conflict, mainly fueled by the disputed border region of Kashmir, has inspired both to seek nuclear weapons.

India conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 1974, the first of any nation outside of the NPT nuclear framework. The next test did not occur until 1998, but just weeks after the second test, Pakistan conducted its first public nuclear weapons test, officially introducing the deterrence concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) defined by U.S.-Russia tensions for decades.

Unlike Washington and Moscow, however, New Delhi and Islamabad have battled directly and continued to do so. Last February, the two neared another all-out war after their first cross-border airstrikes since 1971 and India's consolidation of power over the share of Kashmir it administrates has further fueled tensions between the two as shots continue to be fired across the contested boundary.

Though neither India nor Pakistan officially declare their nuclear arsenals, the Federation of American Scientists estimated in May 2019 that India has between 130 and 140 nuclear warheads and that Pakistan possessed between 140 and 150. A nuclear conflict between the two could kill 125 million in less than a week and reshape the world as we know it, according to a study published in October 2019.

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North Korean soldiers watch a fireworks display put on to celebrate the country's declaration on November 29 that it had achieved full nuclear statehood, during a mass rally on Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on December 1, 2017. The announcement came hours after the country's third intercontinental ballistic missile test and months after its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear weapons test. KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images

An even more heavily-fortified border was created in Asia in the years after World War II, however. Thousands of miles away, U.S. and Soviet forces divided the once-Japan-occupied Korean Peninsula, creating two states based on their opposing political ideologies. Those newly-formed countries soon went to war themselves.

North and South Korea long lived under the nuclear umbrella of their respective allies but the former, suspicious of how a communist split between the Soviet Union and China would affect its security, pressed on with a nuclear program. Pyongyang eventually ratified the NPT in 1985 but withdrew amid failed international talks in 2003, testing its first nuclear weapon in 2006.

Since then, the country has defied United Nations sanctions in conducting five more tests, most recently in September 2017. Current supreme leader Kim Jong Un vowed in April 2018 to voluntarily halt such tests, along with long-range missile launches, ahead of a historic peace process involving both South Korea and the U.S.. Since talks between the countries have stalled, Kim has since signaled a reversal regarding the measure.

Though the U.S. and North Korea have committed to a denuclearization-for-peace process, no deal has emerged and Kim may still continue building warheads. The Federation of American Scientists estimated last year Pyongyang was in possession of between 25 and 30 warheads.

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A picture taken on March 8, 2014 show a partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert. Israeli officials neither confirm nor deny that their country possess nuclear weapons, though experts and former officials have affirmed their existence. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Western Asia too witnessed bloody territorial conflict at the onset of the post-colonial era. The 1948 creation of majority-Jewish Israel across parts of what was U.K.-administered Palestine sparked civil unrest among a mostly Muslim population of Arabs that also included Christians and other minorities. War and mass displacement ensued.

Israel has fought several wars with Arab nations, consolidating control over an increasing amount of land from the U.N.-recognized State of Palestine—as well as Syria's Golan Heights—and developing what many have former officials and experts have said were nuclear weapons. Officially, Israel maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity about its alleged nuclear program. However, it has never signed the NPT and the Federation of American Scientists estimates the country to possess about 80 nuclear warheads.

Israel has, however, targeted the past nuclear programs of adversaries, including Iraq and Syria. Today, Israel's top foe is Iran, which has a nuclear program that it has long argued was only for civil use.

Iran, an NPT signatory, agreed in 2015 to significantly limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief in a deal with the NPT nuclear states and Germany, but the U.S. unilaterally left the accord in 2018 and began imposing intense trade restrictions. With little economic benefits, Tehran has reduced its commitment to the deal and started increasing its uranium enrichment and stockpiling, threatening to leave the NPT as well if the nuclear deal collapsed.

A graphic provided by Statista shows the number of nuclear weapons by country as estimated by the Federation of American Scientists in December 2017. Statista

The international community's newest recognized country, South Sudan, has not signed the NPT, though there have been no indications it has nuclear ambitions. At least two more African countries have seriously pursued nuclear weapons, Libya and South Africa, with the latter actually producing several. Both eventually dismantled their weapons of mass destruction programs voluntarily to comply with international law. However, the NATO-backed overthrow of Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011 has often been cited by North Korea as a reason to hold on to its stockpile.

Most of the world's nuclear weapons by far, however, can be found in the arsenals of Russia and the U.S., which possess around 6,800 and 6,600 warheads, respectively. The two countries have entered into a number of bilateral pacts designed to disarm and reduce their nuclear footprint over the decades; all but one have since been abandoned.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 2010 is the latest installment of a series of agreements that limit and ensure mutual verification and inspection measures over Moscow and Washington's nuclear weapons programs. The deal is set to expire in less than a year's time, and President Donald Trump's administration has dismissed renewal talks unless a wider-ranging accord could be established involving new weapons platforms and additional countries like China.

As for the NPT, the treaty is scheduled for review at a nearly month-long conference hosted in April and May at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. The State Department has also released a trove of historical documents, photographs and footage related to the NPT and its signing in honor of the treaty's 50th anniversary.