The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States by Jeffrey Lewis (2018) 294 p.

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This one, as the British say, does what it says on the tin. Jeffrey Lewis – an American professor of geopolitics and nuclear arms – has written what he terms a “speculative novel” about a North Korean nuclear attack against the United States. The clearest manner in which it doesn’t live up to the title is that it reads more like a very interesting internet long-read or verbal history rather than a very dry commission report, but we’ll obviously forgive him for that.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and it was on my to-read list before it was even published. Not everybody feels the same way; I can’t find the tweet now but I remember somebody on Twitter ranting about how a book like this was just more fuel to the fire of anti-American sentiment against North Korea. People like that are usually tankies, but it’s fair to say the notion of North Korea attacking the United States seems so far from reality as to be lurid, since it would certainly result in the destruction of North Korea itself. This is based on Cold War thinking and is what’s called “rational actor” theory. It’s not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right. In this review I won’t go into details about what unfolds in the book (since the details are what make it so compelling) but I will say that Lewis does a superb job of developing the slowly escalating action/reaction series of events in a way which feels entirely plausible to a layperson, up to and including strikes against the United States. My only gripe was the notion that North Korea has delivery systems (or could in 2020 have delivery systems) capable of reaching the United States. Well, I googled around a bit and it turns out that’s my bad for doubting a nuclear scholar – as of 2017, North Korea does indeed have crude ICBMs of some kind. We don’t know how many nuclear warheads they may have and we don’t know how reliable their ICBMs may or may not be, but they do have them. So here we are in the modern age and we have to accept an unprecedentedly totalitarian state with the ability to rain death down on countries across oceans, and even in my lefty peacenik brain, even as a former resident of Seoul, there’s a part of me that has to wonder if the US and South Korea shouldn’t have just invaded in the 2000s and accepted the casualties.

Anyway: this is a good book. The first half is entirely based around the sequence of events leading to this seemingly unthinkable scenario, and Lewis does a brilliant job of painting this, primarily by modelling every step around a real historical event: the shooting down of KAL 007, the sinking of the Sewol, the attack on the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and his supporters because of Kim’s fear that China was grooming the man as a regent. Other incidents are based not just on Lewis’ speculation but (bear with me) on a reasonable speculation of what North Korean intelligence agents might speculate – like the little-known attack on Dora Farm, in which the US attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein at the outbreak of the Iraq War. One which drew my particular attention was an examination of a nuclear firestorm which develops in Tokyo, partly caused by flammable cladding used in many modern apartment buildings, with Lewis citing not just the Grenfell Tower disaster but a fire in my own city of Melbourne and a subsequent report which found as many as half of Victoria’s modern structures might be at risk. It’s nice to know an American nuclear academic acknowledges that report, even if the Victorian government has mostly ignored it.

Most surprisingly of all – as I read the descriptions of nuclear strike victims towards the end and felt they flowed together, sounded familiar and lacked a certain creative flair – I was surprised to see Lewis reveal in the afterword that every one of them was lifted verbatim from the account of a Hiroshima survivor. “I did this because it is easy, as Americans, to let the slightly stilted grammar of a translation create a false sense of distance between ourselves and the very real people who suffered and died,” Lewis writes. This is an interesting choice, but I’m nonetheless bound to point out that the second half of the book felt weaker and less gripping than the first; when reading about the nuclear strike on New York I couldn’t help but compare it to Whitley Strieber’s much more vivid, multi-chapter description in the 1984 novel Warday. I’ve criticised plenty of books I’ve read lately for being padded, but this is one which, if anything, could have stood to be three times as long.

There’s another issue here, and that’s Donald Trump. I imagine Lewis had probably been thinking about writing a book like this for quite a while, and the election of an unusually unfit president threw a spanner in the works; but at the same time he seems more than happy to explore exactly how a nuclear crisis scenario would unfold under this particular president. We get a largely accurate (in my view and the view of any sensible person) impression of a president who is part toddler and part angry stepfather, a man with little to no interest in his responsibilities, coaxed and goaded and nudged by various other actors within the executive branch. Perhaps owing to the high staff turnover in the administration and a timeline set in 2020, Lewis opts to use fictional stand-in Francis Kelly for the chief of staff – clearly modelled on John Flynn – and speculates Keith Kellogg will become national security adviser. Together with James Mattis, Nikki Halley and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, much of the US government’s reaction is shown from the perspective of these five figures, as they manage (or struggle to manage) the escalating conflict without Trump’s input. As with other aspects of the book, this picture is largely drawn from careful study of news reports, memoirs, and cabinet leaks; it’s when shit really kicks off and Lewis has to speculate about issues surrounding the use of the nuclear football or the evacuation of the president that it sometimes wavers. In his defence, I’ll say that Lewis is clearly an academic first and a creative writer second, and also that Donald Trump being president puts us all in an utterly insane parallel universe that’s stranger than fiction in the first place. Though I must add that Lewis does a merely average job of mimicking Trump’s tweeting, writing and speaking style; contrary to the belief of every cut-rate comedian in the world, it’s not actually very imitable. The book unwisely ends with a rebuttal by former president Trump attacking the commission as Fake News, Crooked Hillary, Very Unfair, et cetera – the low-hanging fruit we’ve all heard a thousand times at this point and which adds nothing to what came before it. But my criticism is largely from the extent to which Lewis pushes this angle, not that he pushes it in the first place. Trump’s reaction to what’s going on can sometimes seem farcical – but so has most of the last two years. That’s hardly Lewis’ fault.

There are other issues with the book. It does occasionally feel like something that was rushed a bit for timely publication. It gives excessive weight to the lead-up to the attack, and leaves various descriptions of devastated American cities as a sort of afterthought. The nuclear devastation maps and their wordy legends are lifted directly from the Nuke Map website (with appendix credit, but still.) The characterisation of Trump and his advisers often ventures into areas where, as a writer, Lewis’ reach exceeds his grasp.

But warts and all, I thought it was great. It’s not the kind of book for everyone, but if a fiction-as-fact account about North Korea launching nuclear weapons against the United States seems like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, I can guarantee you this is one which is done realistically, compellingly, and with a professional amount of research and  historical comparison underlining every inch of its speculation. It has its flaws, as I’ve pointed out above, but the fact is that this is a 294-page book which I read over the space of two days while I had full days at work plus university assignments due. It is – and I don’t usually use this word – unputdownable.