Entry 48: An Outline Emerges

February 19, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 48th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


Well, this weekend I made a good contribution to my third (hopefully final) chapter on the Obama era—1,850 words. The structure of the book that’s taking shape looks like this:

Chapter 1. An intro chapter that does what intros do, presenting the questions driving the book, the basic argument, why it all matters, and some scenesetting in relation to both U.S.-North Korea relations and the risks of nuclear conflict. I expect I’ll have to do some heavy revision to the intro after a draft of the manuscript is complete, but it’s the shortest chapter.

Chapter 2. A background history chapter that covers all the U.S.-relevant history of North Korea, from the division of the Peninsula up through the nuclear diplomacy of the Clinton and George W. Bush eras. It explains North Korean strategic culture, its motivations for pursuing nukes, and how past presidential administrations have wrangled with Pyongyang.

Chapter 3. A conceptual or analytical chapter (not sure how exactly to characterize it) that defines North Korea’s “theory of victory”—how it thinks about the use of force and coercion generally—and identifies the distinct dangers introduced into Korea because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It will be the first time, as far as I know, that anyone will have outlined the various pathways that could lead to North Korean to nuclear first-use.

Chapters 4-6. Three chapters on the Obama era, the third of which I’m just starting. The first Obama chapter documents how he attempted to pivot away from the Bush administration’s North Korea policy on style but held faithful to it on substance. That was a dead letter with Kim Jong Il, who proceeded with his nuclear and missile programs in spite of a period of back-and-forth bilateral nuclear diplomacy. The second Obama chapter, which I just finished, covers most of 2012 and 2013, which was the crucial period when Obama’s Korea policy got really cynical and “strategic patience” really took shape.

The current (third) chapter on the Obama years focuses on the latter Obama years, including the covert cyber campaign to disrupt North Korea’s missile progress, as well as all the stuff that went down during the presidential election cycle. Based on some interviews I’ve conducted, this chapter will also have a section walking through the counterfactual history of a Clinton presidency and how her campaign approached North Korea policy.

I suppose I’m biased, but there’s a lot of good, new stuff in this book—documenting recent history that’s gone untold, and offering analytical insights that nobody’s really presented before. The book that’s taking shape sympathizes with the crap situation the Trump administration has been handed, and will aim to parse out what about the 2017 nuke crisis was distinctly the fault of team Trump vice what would’ve happened under any U.S. president.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.