THE HEAVY COVERAGE of North Korea’s missile program has managed to gloss over a crucial aspect of the story — the awful reality of nuclear war. It remains in the abstract, perhaps because any magnitude of the deaths of millions is too much a statistic to truly comprehend.
Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, is the gut punch everyone needs. The author is one of the world’s foremost nuclear arms control experts, but instead of the usual wonk’s work, he has chosen to write what he dubs “a speculative novel,” an imagined report investigating how nuclear war happened, along the lines of the task of the real 9/11 Commission.
Reading the entirely believable language of bureaucracy unnerved me and, at points, left me physically ill. Nuclear missiles rain down on South Korea, Japan, and the United States, killing three million people in 48 hours, with millions more dying in the subsequent days, months, and years. Lewis writes:
With the widespread destruction and collapse of infrastructure, millions of people began to simply walk out of the destruction zone. Over the course of the afternoon and well into the night, millions of people walked along expressways and over bridges to escape the misery and suffering within the cities. While many eventually made it home after walking ten or even twenty miles, many tens of thousands did not, falling along the way; the escape routes were littered with the bodies of men, women, and children.
As someone who has covered devastation, albeit natural ones such as earthquake disasters, I found Lewis’s descriptions jarringly recognizable, the dislocation of modern-era survivors, suddenly left not only without water, but without cell phones and the internet — without information — wandering people in a shattered state of trauma and loss.
His accounts also recall John Hersey’s stories in Hiroshima, and that is deliberate. Lewis has said Hersey’s book has been most responsible for the professional path he has chosen.
But before any of the devastation, he first takes us on the entirely conceivable set of circumstances that leads to the moment when Kim Jong Un decides to strike.
The Trump administration has greenlit a secret psychological operation, a compromise with White House hawks who preferred a “bloody nose” approach. Bombers would fly toward North Korean airspace only to turn away at the last moment, keeping the North on edge.
A confluence of events comes together. American and South Korean joint military exercises are underway. A commercial flight, BX 411, sets off from Busan to Ulan Bator (this route exists). The cockpit loses power for a few minutes from a known Airbus A320 issue. This is also real, and Lewis includes the citation from the National Transportation Safety Board about the problem at the end of his book (there are more than 250 citations in this “novel”). North Korea detects the plane on its radar, flying without a transponder during the few minutes when it has lost power, and decides to shoot down what it believes is a bomber.
This is fiction, but it is grounded in wonky detail. As South Korean officials debate an appropriate response to the plane’s downing, Lewis reminds us of how hamstrung they can feel. South Korea’s military remains technically under American control, and Lewis notes the dramatic 2017 defection of a North Korean soldier across the DMZ, when South Korean soldiers could not return fire. Later, he provides other real details, including the 20 minutes it took for staffers in Seoul to assemble in the subsequent emergency, basing his timeline on what really happened during the 2010 North Korean shelling of a South Korean island.
And of course, there is death by Twitter. How plausible would it be for Kim Jong Un, in a certain context, to misread Trump’s tweet, carelessly sent one morning from Mar-a-Lago: “LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER!” This is Lewis’s fictional side, but disturbingly, it hardly feels like much artistic license.
At many points, I was seized with the desire to pop Lewis’s book into a FedEx envelope addressed to “Kim Jong Un, the Ryongsong Residence, Pyongyang.” It is a must-read for the players actually involved, from Kim to those in the Trump, South Korea’s Moon, and Japan’s Abe administrations. It is scheduled to be translated into Japanese, with Chinese and South Korean publishers still deciding.
What Lewis does so well is show the geopolitical impact of human judgment and error, made by men who just happened to end up in the offices of national decision-makers. “We now know that, although every one of these events was detected, assessed, and promptly passed up the chain of command, the overall system did not work as intended,” he intones.
In the first 18 months of his presidency, Trump has managed to avoid a true global crisis, the kind that inevitably tests every president at some point in his term. This is a book as much about nuclear disaster as it is about the temperament of President Trump. Lewis’s commentary is unsparing on the latter. Trump is on his fourth chief of staff and fourth national security advisor. His chief of staff devotes much of his time managing up, working around the president’s Fox News and golf schedule. These circumstances contribute to the role the United States plays as the characters stumble into nuclear catastrophe. As mercurial as President Trump is, he is also oddly predictable, and Lewis builds a believable man with his ego, irritability, and carelessness.
Four years ago, it was impossible for most Americans to imagine Trump as president. And so perhaps a book about nuclear disaster, based on 80 percent facts and 20 percent imagination, ought not to be dismissed. As the pretend voice of a commission looking back at a war, Lewis writes with what sometimes feels like dispassionate urgency, other times with plaintive emotional depth. This book is a warning for us, in a climate where life too frequently imitates art.
Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter based between Berlin and Los Angeles. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.