How Nuclear War With North Korea Could Happen
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JEFFREY LEWIS: It’s very hard for reporters to just point out that North Korea has never offered to give up nuclear weapons. Instead, it’s always, well, the president says this and experts differ.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The president’s June summit with North Korea offered some blockbuster coverage. What happened? From WNYC, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Plus, we look back at another moment in our history of nuclear fears, immortalized in the movie The Day After.
AIR FORCE OFFICER: This is not an exercise.
AIR FORCE OFFICER: Roger, I understand.
SECOND AIR FORCE OFFICER: Major Reinhardt, we have a massive attack against the US at, at this time.
MARSHA GORDON: And then we are deploying them, as well, and so everyone located near these missile silos is watching them come out of the ground. And, to me, in some ways, it’s the most haunting images in the film, are seeing these missiles going up into the air.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And a playwright ponders how he might remember a Simpsons episode in the months, years and decades after society’s collapse.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s all comin’ up, after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on three foreign companies for selling prohibited goods to North Korea, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says they won't be lifted until, quote, “the final fully-verified denuclearization of North Korea.” A few days earlier, National Security Adviser John Bolton had complained about North Korean inaction on the issue.
JOHN BOLTON: We’re not looking for rhetoric here, we’re looking for performance of North Korea's own commitment made to us, made to South Korea beforehand, to denuclearize.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting North Korea is not living up to that commitment?
JOHN BOLTON: I’m suggesting -- and President Trump has held the door open for them, they need to walk through it.
BOB GARFIELD: So in a quick recap of recent history, Donald Trump elevated our nuclear fears by calling Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” and threatening, quote, “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then held a summit with Kim that he said pulled the world from the brink of annihilation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And the president tweeted, after the long flight from Singapore everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. He also added, There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: The Kim regime replied that the US must first stand down and carried on developing its nuclear weapons and missile program. The standoff has been bizarre and frightening, a sort of real-life black comedy, which is precisely how it looks to Jeffrey Lewis. He’s director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and an expert on the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Having spent most of the Trump administration being asked where all this could lead, he answers that question in a book titled, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, which is -- a novel.
JEFFREY LEWIS: We do a lot of work at my center where we try to explain what the North Koreans are thinking about nuclear weapons and, and how things might go wrong. And it turns out it’s really hard to explain to people how a crazy outcome could actually happen logically. It’s very hard to reason someone into an unreasonable outcome. It’s much easier to show someone in a story how bad decisions and a bit of bad luck can go wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: The premise of the book is just that convergence of events. Routine US-South Korean wargames are taking place near the Korean DMZ, a provocative US PsyOps strategy, a technical problem on a South Korean passenger plane, all of these resulting in the North Koreans shooting down that airliner and killing 200-some passengers, most of them teenagers. And then all hell breaks loose.
JEFFREY LEWIS: Yeah, so it's easy enough to imagine a serious crisis but what really then has to happen is that crisis has to spin somehow out of control. And in the book the way it spins out of control is leaders trying to make good decisions but trying to make those good decisions with bad information and sometimes with really bad processes. So I don't, for example, paint President Trump as a malignant force who’s trying to start a nuclear war but all the people around him who are trying to manage up spend all their time managing him and not enough time actually managing the crisis that’s spinning out of control.
BOB GARFIELD: It all comes off as ripped out of the headlines and just a little bit extrapolated. In other words, it all seems so real.
JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, yeah. One thing I wanted to do is just have real people do real things. And what happens is the context is different. There was a story that the staff struggles to explain the concept of time zones to President Trump. On a day-to-day basis that's a bit of weird local color but in the middle of an international crisis those kinds of things suddenly get really dangerous. So I didn't force anyone to do anything that they don't already do, I just needed to curate the behaviors that we already see and then toss in a little bit of bad luck.
BOB GARFIELD: In the book, the crisis takes place right after Trump has just tweet fired [LAUGHS] his entire national security team. There’s kind of nobody minding the store.
JEFFREY LEWIS: Yeah. Early on I made the decision to put President Trump down at Mar-a-Lago. I actually dug into the different practices for staffing the president when he's down there. Mar-a-Lago is a private club and so the staff don't stay there. When you put all that stuff together, the way the president’s being handled presents these really obvious plot points for things to go really wrong, for him to tweet when he shouldn't be, for him to get bad information that he shouldn't have and just generally to be very disruptive.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you said earlier that you don't portray the president in this book as behaving out of malice but the Donald Trump you write about in this book is an erratic, vain, incurious imbecile, which is just one of many factors contributing to the catastrophe but not a trivial one.
JEFFREY LEWIS: Even when you have less erratic presidents, there's a lot about our nuclear policy that's a little bit crazy. Trump helps illustrate why certain things like, for example, giving our presidents sole authority to launch nuclear weapons without a second vote maybe isn't the greatest idea.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the risks you identified, seems to me, reside in people's lack of understanding about North Korean mentality and its history, of American nuclear doctrine, of our ability to intercept incoming missiles and a whole host of other assumptions that many of us simply are getting wrong. What's the top of your list?
JEFFREY LEWIS: I think the big thing that we never quite think about is how our plans interact with their plans. You know, in the book I described three different war plans, North Korea's war plan, South Korea's war plan and the US war plan. And the US war plan actually shares something in common with the other two, which is it totally depends on going first. The problem is two of them are wrong about that, and I really worry that in a crisis that could be incredibly escalatory because I think military officials in all three countries will be pushing their president to get moving before the other side does.
BOB GARFIELD: To what extent is the press coverage culpable in our misunderstanding of the situation here?
JEFFREY LEWIS: One big problem is that the North Koreans are never really represented in our coverage. Our coverage is almost always a political horse race. It’s Republicans versus Democrats. So the North Koreans are almost, like, extras in the story, which is not how they are in real life.
And then, I think, the other thing which is just a structural problem that is true for all reporting at the moment is what do we do when the president lies? We have seen the Secretary of State and the president of the United States describe what was agreed to in Singapore in terms that are just plainly false. And I think it's very hard for reporters to just point out that North Korea has never offered to give up nuclear weapons. You know, instead, it's always, well, the president says this and experts differ. That leaves open the idea that perhaps the falsehoods that the administration have presented are true but then leads to this whiplash effect when it turns out North Korea is not giving up the bomb.
BOB GARFIELD: May I suggest a possible third area of concern, and that is the characterization of the North Korean regime as fundamentally irrational?
JEFFREY LEWIS: Yeah, I think that we have real trouble separating ruthlessness from irrationality. You know, a lot of the things that Kim Jong Un has done are terrible, right, assassinating his half-brother or executing his uncle, but those are not instances where he’s insane. Those are instances where he, with some reason, believes that there are people who want to push him from power. We don't do a good job of trying to understand how it might be rational in his mindset.
BOB GARFIELD: In the beginning of this conversation, I outlined some of the things that have taken place with respect to North Korea and how the two sides seem to be no closer to any kind of ongoing enforceable agreement. What do you think does happen from here?
JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, we’re going to continue to see this gap. You know, the North Koreans are not offering to give up their nuclear weapons. What the North Koreans think is that their nuclear weapons have brought the United States to the table and that if they're willing to entertain the aspiration that someday these weapons won't be needed that then the United States will move to make relations better. The US has the opposite idea, right? Give up the nuclear weapons first and then we get better relations. That gap is not bridgeable, right? Someone has to change. And so, I think in the, for the foreseeable future that gap will persist and the Trump administration is gonna try to paper over it.
What I worry about is the day when it becomes clear that North Korea isn't giving up its nuclear weapons, what does the Trump administration do? The best option would be to admit that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons, admit that the threats of 2017 were counterproductive, be realistic that we’re going to have to learn to live, at least for a while, with North Korea's nuclear weapons and then work on a totally different basis. That really does not sound like President Trump to me, right?
What seems far more likely is that President Trump will turn on Kim Jong Un in the same way he's turned on other world leaders who have disappointed him. And then he will take the car keys away from Pompeo and he’ll give them to John Bolton, and I think we’ll be in for the kind of rough period that I describe at the beginning of my book.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, how rough, really? The whole point of your book is that we were just a few coincidental events away from nuclear devastation. Is there anything you can say to reassure me that this is all [LAUGHS] just a figment of your imagination? JEFFREY LEWIS: I think the best I can do is say that if you look at past nuclear crises and past close calls, it would be [LAUGHS] far more frightening than this book. We've been way worse off before and we've made dumber decisions and we’ve always managed to muddle through. So [LAUGHS] if, if you think this book is frightening, try going through the historical documents.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeffrey, thank you very much.
JEFFREY LEWIS: Happy to be your ray of sunshine.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeffrey Lewis is the author of The 2020 Commission Report on The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
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Coming up, 35 years after The Day After.