It’s only been about two months since US President Donald Trump proclaimed that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat” after having apparently made a denuclearization agreement with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore (which many experts derided as being incredibly lacking and unenforceable). Since then, it’s become increasingly apparent that Trump spoke too soon, as there has been virtually no progress due to the North Korean government having no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons anytime soon (or at the very least, not 60-70% of its arsenal at once). Tensions between the US and North Korea thus remain high, making the risk of a conventional conflict or even a limited nuclear exchange all too plausible.
None of this has proven surprising to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, best known for hosting the Arms Control Wonk podcast, whose new book The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States demonstrates just how easily those tensions could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Contrary to what many may have expected, this is not strictly an academic publication, but a speculative novel that is best compared (in terms of tone, research, and quality) to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. The result is a well-written book that can be easily recommended to virtually anyone within academia or outside it.
The basic premise of The 2020 Commission Report is simple: how could the current situation between the US and North Korea (with South Korea and Japan inevitably being dragged in due to their proximity to the latter) escalate to the use of nuclear weapons? As it turns out, all it would really take is a relatively minor incident to trigger the use of force, along with a number of misunderstandings and miscommunications between everyone involved (including some ill-thought out tweets by Trump, naturally). From there, policy choices like the infamous “bloody nose” proposals (as well as pre-Trump administration policies and fictional ones with a basis in past examples) end up worsening the situation to the point that nuclear weapons end up being used. All of this is supported by research on par with any academic publication, from analysis of nuclear policy over the past several decades to newly-publicized findings regarding South Korea missile sites provided by Lewis’ colleague Dave “Geolocation Jesus” Schmerler. Even the damage and casualties resulting from a nuclear explosion have been meticulously researched (in part using the ever-popular NukeMap tool). This makes the descriptions of the destruction caused by even limited nuclear weapon use all-too plausible and disturbing. Some liberties are have been taken, such as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly being replaced by the time the book takes place due to the constant rumours that he is about to lose his job in the present, but these are inevitable concessions to the novel taking place a few years in the future.
In keeping with the tone of the Arms Control Wonk podcast, which adroitly juggles nuclear weapons policy with irreverent humor (such as providing Trump with a variety of nicknames like “Spraytan Caligula”), The 2020 Commission Reportbalances the grim facts of nuclear war with numerous comedic moments. The best of these are on par with the madness of the War Room scenes in Dr. Strangelove, particularly one involving Trump and the nuclear football (the briefcase that allows the US President to order the launch of nuclear weapons within minutes) – though to say any more would spoil the fun. Others are more conventional, such as the numerous Trump tweets that pepper the book and how individuals react to them (though even these are the product of research, being based on existing tweets). Suffice it to say that prospective readers have no reason to worry that The 2020 Commission Report will be an unceasingly bleak experience, as there are plenty of laughs to be had (although some may be more nervous and uncertain than others).
Altogether, The 2020 Commission Report is a very timely book (both in terms of its subject matter and the specific publication date, as it was released the day after the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing). Policy experts will enjoy it for exploring the outcomes of present-day government decisions, while non-experts will be able to learn why tensions between a superpower and a tiny nuclear weapon state have proven to be so worrisome to the former. Virtually everyone will be able to enjoy the mix of nuclear pessimism and dark comedy (except, perhaps, for North Korea hawks and those who view nuclear wars as “winnable”).
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article is a cross-post from Mark’s Policy Musings.
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