Would the West be able to save Japan or South Korea after an EMP strike?


What would war with North Korea look like? It’s a topic on everyone’s mind. We know we can win, but in doing so, how much damage could Kim Jong Un cause to America and the world?

There’s been a lot of public speculation on North Korea’s military threats, from the forests of artillery that bracket densely packed Seoul, to the possible chemical and biological warheads those artillery shells might be firing, to the nuclear tipped ballistic missiles that are the flashpoint of the current crisis. What gets discussed rarely, (or barely) is a secondary threat posed by Kim’s nuclear arsenal: the EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, released by an atomic blast.

EMPs have the power to fry electronics, which is why they were part and parcel of American-Soviet MAD (mutually assured destruction). According to Cold War Doctrine, high altitude nuclear bursts would turn out our lights, stall our cars and cause our planes to fall from the sky, and throw our country back into the Dark Ages… and that was before the city-killing nukes even landed.

{mosads}Today, estimates suggest an EMP could kill as many as 90 percent of Americans, due to the destruction of critical infrastructure and an inability to get vital supplies to urban population centers.


Those estimates are probably overblown, and Kim fortunately doesn’t have warheads to blanket us, or the missiles to reach us (at least not yet). But what he could do is detonate one or more high altitude warheads above South Korea or Japan. The resulting EMP would annihilate them technologically. Tens of millions of people, who are more densely packed in than we are in the United States, would be cut off in a silent time warp. No electricity, no communications, and no immediate escape.

Mountains of food, time sensitive medication, and replacement electronic components would be needed to avoid catastrophic loss of life. And remember, all the trucks, ships and planes in the EMP danger zone would be immobilized as well, so all these emergency supplies would have to come from the outside world. And the outside world would have a devil of a time getting into the affected area because all the harbors and airports would be fried as well. Imagine how long it would take to push just one dead 747 off a runway (because the tow trucks would be equally fried). How in the world would you clear all those derelict, darkened ships from a choked port when the tugboats are derelict as well?

What would this medieval black hole mean for America, half a world away? Plenty! We’re talking about two of our largest trading partners, two critical links in the global supply chain. Losing them, even for weeks, might throw our entire travel and trade infrastructure into chaos. A stock market crash might be the best potential scenario. Throw in a few supply shortages, flight cancellations, and the inevitable inaccurate-hyperbolic media circus we’re all used to, and the panic could be worse than a real EMP.

Imagine if we happen to have a hurricane or even polar vortex, at the very moment all our emergency supplies and services are overseas helping our allies? Remember Katrina? Remember how elements of the Louisiana National Guard were in Iraq?

And all of this might not even be part of a declared war. Let’s say that Kim Jong Un doesn’t use an EMP as the first salvo in a shooting conflict (as Cold War-era planner’s might have assumed). Let’s just say he detonates one as an ‘accident’, a so-called ‘failure’ of a missile test, which he then promptly turns around and blames on the U.S. sabotage campaign recently reported by the New York Times?

What would be, could be, an appropriate response? A genuine war? That would only kill more people (including the 28,500 American troops forward stationed in Korea, many with families).

What about reciprocity, detonating an EMP above North Korea? If you’ve ever looked at the map of the world at night, you’ve notice how dark North Korea is. That’s their one advantage in an EMP tit-for-tat. They don’t have many electronics to fry. This is the inherent threat of an electro-magnetic pulse weapon, dragging two of the world’s most advanced, interconnected nations, down to the level of one of the world’s most primitive.

This is not to say that Kim Jong Un shouldn’t be confronted, but it does give us one more reason to consider the consequences. It’s all very well to think of the Korean peninsula as the “Far East,” but when discussing an EMP attack, our “America First” administration needs to remember that Americans still reside on Planet Earth. We need to consider the global repercussions of a local conflict when it comes to our emergency stockpiles, the fragility of our infrastructure, and the ability to aid our allies and trading partners in their (literal) darkest hour.

Max Brooks (@MaxBrooksAuthor) is a nonresident fellow at The Modern War Institute at West Point and a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council. He is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “World War Z.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Japan Kim Jong Un Max Brooks North Korea Nuclear weapons South Korea
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