What is most terrifying about The 2020 Commission, the new novel by Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury Institute nuclear expert and professor, on a nuclear war with North Korea, “is how much of it is true,” according to Economist.
Critics call The 2020 Commissionon the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States by Lewis “the Dr. Strangelove of our times,” “the gut punch everyone needs,” and “an attempt to give us hindsight before it’s too late.” The novel is presented in the form of a fictional government report published three years after horrific nuclear attacks on South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. It lays out a plausible scenario for how a nu.clear war with North Korea might unfold, through a series of unfortunate errors and circumstances—and one provocative presidential tweet.
A leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, Lewis is often called upon to provide analysis and insights in the national and international media. The founder of the Arms Control Wonk blog and podcast of the same name, Lewis has frequently warned of the dangers posed by what he sees as the Trump administration’s unrealistic expectations and lack of understanding of the North Korean regime. Julian Borger writes in the Guardian/Observer that Lewis and his team at the Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies have “played an important role” in revealing the extent of North Korea’s nuclear program, and goes on to say, “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.”
The fictional crisis begins when a South Korean passenger airliner, temporarily off course because of a software issue, is mistaken for an air bomber and shot down by North Korea. South Korean leaders, for a variety of reasons, decide to respond independently without consulting with the U.S. The President of the United States is playing golf at his “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, which poses logistical challenges in terms of dealing with the crisis, and his ill-tempered, ill-timed tweet reaches a leader of North Korea who is dealing with his own communication problems.
The novel is full of historical information and insight, as well as painstaking details, supported by the extensive notes Lewis shares from every chapter. There is also no shortage of the bleak humor Lewis is known for: “In its black comedy, surfacing in the deadpan prose, it is a Dr. Strangelove for our times,” Borger writes. The Economist says that fans of the Arms Control Wonk who are expecting notes of absurdist and scornful humor will not be disappointed. Lewis himself told the New York Times that although he cares “a lot about people getting the right lessons from the book,” he also promises that “it’s not like eating your vegetables.”
Richard Engel of NBC News visited the Middlebury Institute campus to learn more about how a group of academics are using creative problem solving and innovative tools to gain insight into North Korea’s nuclear missile program.