| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

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Jeffrey Lewis
Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (Credit: Elena Zhukova )

Critics are calling The 2020 Commission on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States by Middlebury Institute professor and nuclear weapons expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis “the opposite of a warm glass of milk,” “a Dr. Strangelove for our time,” 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 nuclear war with North Korea might unfold, through a series of unfortunate errors and circumstances, as well as one provocative presidential tweet.

A leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, Lewis is often called upon by the national and international media to provide analysis and insights. The founder of the Arms Control Wonk blog and podcast, he 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, adding that, “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.”

A leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, Lewis is often called upon by the national and international media to provide analysis and insights.

In April of this year, the New York Times published an op-ed by Lewis, “The Word that Could Help the World Avoid Nuclear War,” on how the word “denuclearization” means different things to Kim Jung Un and Donald Trump. But it was his article for the Washington Post in December of 2017 that drew the attention of publishers. In “This is how nuclear war with North Korea would unfold,” Lewis describes a series of events, including a tweet, that lead to North Korea using its nuclear arsenal against the U.S. and its allies. A publisher at Houghton Mifflin Alex Littlefield called him up shortly after the publication of the article to ask if he had ever been interested in making it a book-length project. In an interview with John Williams  of the New York Times, Lewis says he “didn’t want to be a cliché, the academic who writes the terrible fiction book.” He says that the idea appealed to him of a novel purporting to be something it is not: in this case, a government report.

In its black comedy, surfacing in the deadpan prose, it is a Dr. Strangelove for our times.
— Julian Borger
The 2020 Commission cover

The fictional crisis begins when a South Korean passenger airliner, temporarily off course because of a software issue, is mistaken for a 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” in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, which poses logistical challenges in terms of dealing with the crisis, and his ill-tempered, ill-timed tweet reaches and provokes the North Korean leader, who is dealing with his own communication problems.

As noted in The Economist, “The terrifying thing about The 2020 Commission is how much of it is real.” 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 podcast 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.”

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Jason Warburg

Eva Gudbergsdottir