Van, a senior lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, is an expert on foreign policy and security issues in the United States and Asia–Pacific. He’s asked regularly by international media to comment on North Korea and published his first book, Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US–North Korea Relations, with Cambridge University Press in 2016.
“Last year, we started seeing Trump and Kim Jong-un making threats of nuclear war and trading personal insults—this was all unprecedented.
“I was very concerned by what I was seeing. In the midst of that crisis, just after Trump threatened ‘fire and fury’ against North Korea, the editor from my first book called me up and asked, ‘What do you think about writing a book about the origins of the nuclear crisis?’
“Cambridge was making an offer I couldn’t say no to—it’s a once in a lifetime thing. For academics, there’s basically no better publisher.”
There was a catch though—he had to write the 90,000-word book from scratch, and had only six months to do it.
To deal with this challenge, Van started a blog about his writing process called Nuke your Darlings, which he published in real time. Adding more writing to his daily workload might seem counter-intuitive, but Van insists it helped in a big way.
“It became a self-accountability mechanism. I didn’t want to fall short of the expectations I’d created, and the blog forced me to find time to work on the book even on days when I was insanely busy.”
As the crisis unfolded, Van diligently worked on his book while continuing to engage with the media and maintaining a busy teaching schedule. He says there were times when the looming deadline put a strain on his life, but his desire to make sense of the crisis helped him through.
“I was just consumed with worry, and trying to express that worry publicly. It wasn’t enough to write a thousand-word opinion piece—the book was like having a larger canvas on which to explain how we got to the point where two world leaders were threatening each other with nuclear war.”
Along the way there were some historic moments, including the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore last June.
In the end, the brinkmanship subsided and crisis was averted, albeit not through conventional diplomacy. Van puts it down largely to North Korean strategy and Trump’s capriciousness.
“I hate to say it, but this train was driven primarily by Kim Jong-un,” he says. “But at least it’s not war—it’s infinitely better from where we were last year.”
Van is originally from the United States, where he worked for the Department of Defense in the Pentagon. His new book, titled On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War, will be published in November.
Despite the nuclear crisis having cooled down, Van is wary of getting too comfortable. “Wars can happen even when nobody wants them to, and the underlying nuclear situation that bred the crisis in 2017 hasn’t changed.”