Kim Jong-un nukes the US in this terrifyingly plausible near-future fiction by a North Korea nuclear weapons expert
Reflecting on US nostalgia for music from past wars, the musician and satirist Tom Lehrer once joked:” I feel that if any anthems are going to come out of World War III, we’d better start writing them now .”
Those whose undertaking it is to contemplate the likelihood and impact of nuclear war feel the same way about postmortems. Trying to explain what went wrong after a thermo-nuclear conflict kills millions is the ultimate in futility- a stable door shut after all the ponies have bolted and the stable burned to the ground.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States is an attempt to give us hindsight before it’s too late. It calls itself a speculative fiction, a horrific imagined future based on a quite plausible extrapolation of the present. Its author and the author of the imagined commission report that provides the book’s format are one and the same. Jeffrey Lewis is one of the world’s leading experts on the North Korean atomic weapon program. His team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey has played an important role in uncovering the fullest extent of that program through the analysis of satellite images and North Korea’s own messaging. It is quite likely that if the worst happened, Lewis would be summoned by an investigative commission seeking to determine what had gone so disastrously wrong.
At the high tide of optimism surrounding Donald Trump’s June summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Lewis was one of the most persistent voices warning of the dangers of Trump’s unrealistic expectations based on a misunderstanding of the North Korean regime. When Kim agreed to” denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, he was not offering unilateral disarmament, Lewis pointed out, but recurring a stock phrase used by the regime for more than two decades to describe a drawn-out and mutual process in which the US would be doing a lot of the disarming.
The warnings of Lewis and others are now being borne out. Kim has made it quite clear that he is keeping his arsenal. Trump is in refusal of that fact. In The 2020 Commission , Lewis imagines what could happen when denial is no longer possible and Trump goes looking for others to blame. He fires his secretary of state, national security consultant and White House chief of staff in a single tweet, announcing:” Tomorrow we announce a new national security team! Running to the mattress !” Above all, Trump blames Kim, and resumes his campaign of tweeted schoolboy insults about” that SHORT and FAT kid” and “Little Rocketman”.
The commission, interviewing survivors and poring over the official records in a Virginia bunker in the aftermath of the 2020 cataclysm, described by the relentless unravelling of the situation. Pyongyang resumes nuclear and missile tests. The US military resumes joint military exercises and ramps them up, adding a covert part- a series of bomber sorties designed to unnerve the North Koreans, flying right up to the demilitarised zone( DMZ) between the two Koreas before banking away at the last moment. It was a tactic that had seemed to work against the Soviet Union, at the least in the eyes of the US air force.
The spark to this conflagration-in-waiting is a glitch on a South Korean commercial airliner that knocks out its navigation system for got a couple of minutes, enough to carry it close to the DMZ, before being rerouted. The airbus’s consequent course looks to North Korean air defence very much like another US bomber run. The plane carrying 228 passengers, almost half of them children on a school exchange programme, is shot down, triggering reaction, counter-reaction and miscalculation that leaves millions dead in North and South Korea, Japan and the US, over the space of four days in March 2020. The South Koreans hit back for the downing of the plane with a salvo of weapons. Kim, convinced he is under attack, reaches back with atomic weapon against Seoul, Japan and US basis in the region. The US retaliates with air strikes on military targets and Kim’s palaces, inspiring him to unleash nuclear ICBMs against the US mainland. The US obliterates the North Korean army in a 48 -hour blitz but it is too late to prevent the worst cataclysm in US history.
As the events accelerate, Lewis deftly relaxes the constraints he has imposed on his story by telling it through the words of an official report, permitting the narrative to take on the pace of a thriller without breaking with the form. He transposes eyewitness accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, putting them in the mouths of the survivors from New York and the Washington suburbs who come to tell their story of the commission on human rights. He faces these new challenges of many who spend their own lives thinking about nuclear weapon- how to bring their ever-present danger to the attention of a complacent public who presume they will never be used. There are few people left even in the top reaches of government who are fully aware of how often the world came within a hair’s breadth of tragedy in the cold war through human and machine error.
In its efforts to tug at the sleeve of a blithe nation, Lewis’s book follows in the post-apocalyptic footsteps of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or the 1983 movie The Day After . In its black slapstick, which surfaces in the deadpan prose of such reports, it is a Dr Strangelove for our time. Trump is as flamboyantly grotesque a character as any cooked up by Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers.
The nuclear war predictably starts with a tweet. Kim becomes convinced he is about to be killed and determined on launch his nuclear weapons after reading a classic Trump caps-lock exclamation, casually sent from Mar-a-Lago proclaiming:” LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER !” Once the missiles are in the air and Trump is yanked away from lunch with his golfing buddies, he makes a lunge for the nuclear “football”, the satchel containing the launch codes for US rockets. After a tussle, his military aide flees the scene with the football, alarmed by Trump’s apparent determination to attack China as well as North Korea. The chairman lies sprawling on the ground, humiliated and surly. In a funk, he flies off in Air force One, leaving his senior staff behind to face an incoming North Korean ICBM hurtling towards Mar-a-Lago. Seeming out at the mushroom cloud from his window seat, Trump can only murmur:” Perfectly beautiful .” It is a measure of the insanity of the past 18 months that this seems entirely believable.
In an aftermath that is even more partisan and toxic than what came before, with former president Trump denouncing the commission( unavoidably) as” a total witch hunt” and fake news, the commission shies away from assigning blame, concluding that administration officials” induced the best decisions they could with the information that was available to them at the time “.
What Lewis clearly aims to drive home is that many of the steps that led to war are rooted in pre-Trump orthodoxy. Heavy bombers have been permanently stationed in Guam since 2004 and their practice sorties to the Korean peninsula have been made public since 2013. Since he inherited power in 2011, US intelligence assessments have concluded that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor, and policymakers have reasoned that he would never do anything as suicidal as start a nuclear war.
Lewis believes that could be flawed logic. His opinion is that the North Korean leader, faced with the hazards of regime change, is likely to see a nuclear ten-strike on US forces-out in the region as his best hope of survival, betting that the US would not persevere and risk the destruction of American cities.
The inescapable conclusion of The 2020 Commission is that the potential for catastrophe is already baked into the military logic pursued by both sides. In other terms, we were already drifting towards the abyss even before Trump confiscated the helm.
Julian Borger is the Guardian’s world affairs editor .
* The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States by Jeffrey Lewis is published by WH Allen( PS9. 99 ). To order a copy for PS8. 49 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Phone orders min p& p of PS1. 99
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