Speculative fiction or prophetic prose? Novel imagines a U.S.-North Korea nuclear conflict

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

No one expected the series of miscalculations, random events and corresponding choices that prompted North Korea to launch dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles at Japan, South Korea and ultimately the United States. While just a handful of those missiles reached their targets — or areas near them — the devastation that the bombs wrought was unprecedented.

In Japan, the metropolitan areas of Tokyo and Yokohama were the hardest hit, while scores were killed in the South Korean cities of Seoul, Pyeongtaek, Daegu and Busan. In the end, around 1.4 million people died and more than 5 million were severely wounded as a result of the attacks.

The second wave of the North Korean attack, which struck the U.S., killed another 1.4 million people and seriously wounded 2.8 million more.

This is the story that plays out in Jeffrey Lewis’ speculative novel, “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States,” which takes the form of a 9/11 Commission-style report on a fictionalized war between North Korea and the U.S. and its Asian allies in March 2020.

It’s an accessible interpretation and warning of an entirely plausible scenario that is grounded in real-world technology and events, and the observable traits of its main characters, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“North Korea says it is willing to use nuclear weapons and that’s what I was never able to convey in nonfiction, no matter what I tried, I could never really effectively express it,” Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, told the Daily Mail last month.

“Nuclear war is an unimaginable horror so we discount the possibility of it happening, even though it actually happened to people who are alive now,” he added.

In the novel, a malfunctioning passenger jet full of South Korean children heading from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar flies dangerously close to North Korean airspace before a correction is made. While not normally cause for concern, the malfunction proves disastrous as the plane is mistaken for a U.S. bomber and is shot down by the North, killing all aboard.

Unbeknownst to South Korean air traffic controllers, who otherwise might have rerouted flight plans, for several months prior to the incident, the United States had been secretly sending bombers on missions to approach North Korean airspace on apparent warpaths to target various military facilities — then recalling them at the last second — as part of a psy-ops plan to rattle the regime.

The shoot down sets in motion a chain of events that includes a retaliatory strike by South Korea, White House communication lapses, careless and belligerent Trump tweets, nuclear retaliation, the failure of U.S. missile defenses, massive civilian casualties and, finally, a bitter partisan divide in the United States over who is to blame.

Japan, and the experiences of hibakusha (surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), played a key role in helping Lewis — who is a member of the Hiroshima Round Table, a symposium on nuclear disarmament, and visits the city each year — craft the descriptions of what nuclear war would be like and how it could play out today.

In fact, Lewis based his descriptions of death and injury on authentic accounts from survivors of the atomic bomb the Americans dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

“The experience of visiting Hiroshima every year played a central role,” Lewis tells The Japan Times. “I am convinced that we can’t talk honestly or ethically about nuclear weapons unless we embrace the testimonies of those who survived the attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as painful as that can be.”

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of the novel is just how close it hews to actual events since the beginning of the Trump presidency.

From insulting Kim (in the book, Trump’s ominous — and oblivious — tweet that “LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER!” acts as more of a threat than he realizes) to debates in Congress over the president’s authority to launch nukes these fictionalized events, many of which might have sounded outrageous just two years ago, now seem plausible. (In the book, Trump is involved in a tussle with his military aide over the nuclear “football,” the satchel containing the launch codes for U.S. missiles. After the physical row, his military aide flees the scene with the football, alarmed by Trump’s apparent determination to attack China as well as North Korea).

Now, with the slow drip of news emerging that U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations are facing rocky times, the fears of war that gripped the region last year are returning, raising the question: If diplomacy fails, could the novel prove prophetic?

“I am quite worried that the current effort at diplomacy is doomed owing to unrealistic expectations in the United States, as well as sabotage by people like (U.S. National Security Adviser) John Bolton,” says Lewis. “When (diplomacy) fails, the president will want to turn up the pressure on North Korea and I fear that will lead us back into the crisis-like atmosphere of 2017.”