The 2020 Commission Report
Jeffrey Lewis might offer this as a “speculative novel”, but the terrifying thing - as he explains - is that every move in the plot of how North Korea launches 13 nuclear-tipped ICBMs at the continental United States - is highly credible. The 2020 Commission Report is written half as a Senate autopsy on how the conflict happened, and half as an on-the-ground thriller, mad-Trump antics and all. Its also nicely rammed full of geeky missile detail, as one would expect from the publisher of armscontrolwonk.com. You think Alaska’s Ground-based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) system - meant to blow up missiles as they glide through space - actually works?
Brief plot outline: Negotiations have broken down. Pompeo has been fired by tweet from State, Bolton has gone too. Kim Jun-Un has started his nuclear tests again. In the midst of US-Korean war-games, North Korea shoots down a commercial flight, mistaking it for a military plane. South Korea’s President Moon fires a couple of missiles north to make point (without telling the Americans). Kim, convinced the invasion has begun, launches World War III. By the end of March 21 2020, Pyongyang is rubble, Kim is buried and millions in Seoul, Tokyo, Manhattan, Miami and DC are dead, or are so irradiated they soon will be. No single step in this future tragedy rings untrue. Kim sits in his bunker, hears one of his palaces has been hit, and his phone system is down (must be a cyber-attack) - what else do you expect him to do?
The novel struck me as a anti-dystopian, and far more exciting, version of Graham Allison’s breakthrough hit - The Essence of a Decision, the study of how Kennedy and his brother had to fight off their own military’s bullying, in addition to Krushchev and Castro, in October 1962. It was only steely nerves, inspired leadership and a great deal of luck that the world avoided nuclear war that month. The lessons? Any bureaucracy has a complex dynamic of its own - not only making it hard to run, but also hard to read. Already-imperfect information does not flow perfectly up to the commander in chief. Commander in chiefs might be narcissistic morons (@ Mar El Lago, not Camelot). An opponent’s motives are usually blurry; in any potential armed conflict, the incentive is to over-react, and fast. As Martin Amis explained in London Fields, if you ever think you’re going to be in a bar fight, crushingly-early overwhelming force is your only option. Head-butt his nose before he even touches you.
Lewis is really good on the two leaders. We have a woefully-unqualified and unstable President Trump, decamped to Mar El Lago, his advisors trying to explain to him that Kim’s missiles actually work. In contrast, Lewis paints Kim as an entirely rational actor, but he’s also paranoid about assassination attempts (not unreasonably). Trump’s tweets put him even more on edge. And regime survival relies in Kim’s eyes on his willingness to use nukes - he knows he’s going to lose quickly in any conventional conflict. He bets that Trump will back off if he nukes Guam and Okinawa. Bad call.
Other things I learned? The much vaunted THAAD missile system’s radar only faces one way - and so can be easily taken out by DPRK drones sneaking up from behind. The “precision” missile strikes which kicked off Desert Storm hardly ever destroyed their targets. Nukes are very easy to drive around on trucks, avoiding detection. You don’t feel the 50% radiation burns you suffer within a 2-3km radius of a 20 kiloton blast - the nerve endings in your skin have been burnt off.
For the first year of Trump’s presidency, I was extremely worried that we were heading to some kind of conflict. Sanctions were tightening, the US was ready to put more military assets in the region, possibly considering an early strike, all increasing the chances of Kim acting first. Before he was National Security Advisor, John Bolton supported a ‘bloody nose’ strike against the DPRK - to send a clear message. But this is exactly what Moon does in this novel, and, er, its not inspired strategy.
It now looks very much like Trump has decided to forget about North Korea. A summit was enough for the fool and his PR campaign. Pyongyang and Beijing played a blinder, and have seemingly won; sanctions are off, China has his back, and Kim has more time to perfect his kit. One more successful test and he may be assured he can really hit the East Coast. At some point, Trump might decide talks are going nowhere and ramp up the pressure again, but maybe he’s now just going to ignore the DPRK threat. Bolton can fume, but what can he do? And so we’re now in a deterrence regime. And the chain of dominoes that Lewis describes so well is just going to stand there, always ready to fall. Would be really nice if those GMD systems worked.