Entry 86: All Smoke, No Fire

Editor’s Note: This is the 86th 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?

Today was information overload. It was one of those news days where bombshell after bombshell just kept dropping. It made me feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.

I’m not going to recap it all for you, but suffice it to say that by the end of the day, I was unfazed by seeing a picture of former FBI Director James Comey with Method Man and Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan, awesome as it was. It was a Comey-Meets-Wu-Tang kind of day.

Cutting through all the news churn and keeping our eye on the strategic picture, there are only a few basic questions we should really care about. Unfortunately, nothing that happened today helps answer any of them.

Is the Trump administration still stuck on comprehensive denuclearization (CVID), or is it willing to entertain a bargain that allows North Korea to retain nukes capable of striking U.S. allies?

Will Trump give a peace treaty/regime to North Korea up front? If so, what will he have to offer later? If there’s to be a negotiation, the things North Korea wants are points of leverage, which means you don’t frontload them. Maybe it ought not be a negotiation, but if it is, you don’t give away the farm in exchange for promissory notes.

What is Kim Jong Un willing to give up voluntarily? We know he won’t actually denuclearize, and we know he wants to be a normal member of the international community—but with nukes. So what will he concede? Nothing we’ve seen in statements and leaks so far indicates he’ll do anything different than his ancestors, which is bad for us.

In sum, today was all smoke and no fire. I turned down three media interview requests today and I have mixed feelings about that. I wrote another 810 words, but I’m having to spend greater amounts of time just figuring out how to package this ending chapter. If I were to literally just chase the events down as they happen, there would never actually be an ending. Also, the value proposition of the book is about the origins of the 2017 nuclear crisis and how to manage risks of nuclear war.

As potentially important as all this diplomacy stuff is right now, it’s all happening post-crisis. Could another crisis happen? I’d bet money on it, and probably before the end of Trump’s presidency. But that would be a new crisis, which in turn could only be understood in relation to the previous.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.