In the shadow of North Korea’s third successful test of an ICBM on Nov. 29, Secretary of Defense Mattis described the North Korean missile threat as “a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world basically.”
The Congressional EMP Commission warns North Korea may already pose a worldwide threat, not only by ICBM, but by satellites, two of which presently orbit over the United States and every country on Earth.
A single satellite, if nuclear-armed, detonated at high-altitude would generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) capable of blacking out power grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructure. It would pose an existential threat.
Yet, after massive intelligence failures grossly underestimating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, their biggest threat to the U.S. and the world remains unacknowledged — nuclear EMP attack.
Dr. William Graham, Chairman of the EMP Commission, testified to Congress on Oct. 12, 2017:
While most analysts are fixated on when in the future North Korea will develop highly reliable intercontinental missiles, guidance systems, and reentry vehicles capable of striking a U.S. city, the threat here and now from EMP is largely ignored. EMP attack does not require an accurate guidance system because the area of effect, having a radius of hundreds or thousands of kilometers, is so large. No reentry vehicle is needed because the warhead is detonated at high-altitude, above the atmosphere. Missile reliability matters little because only one missile has to work to make an EMP attack against an entire nation.
The EMP threat continues to be low-priority and largely ignored, even though on Sept. 2, North Korea confirmed the EMP Commission’s assessment by testing an H-Bomb that could make a devastating EMP attack, and in its official public statement. According to Pyongyang:
The H-Bomb, the explosive power of which is adjustable from tens of kilotons to hundreds of kilotons, is a multi-functional thermonuclear weapon with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP attack according to strategic goals.
Two days after their H-Bomb test, on September 4, Pyongyang also released a technical report “The EMP Might of Nuclear Weapons” accurately describing a “super-EMP” weapon generating 100,000 volts/meter:
In general, the strong electromagnetic pulse generated from nuclear bomb explosions between 30 kilometers and 100 kilometers above the ground can severely impair electronic devices, electric machines, and electromagnetic grids or destroy electric cables and safety devices…This electromagnetic pulse forms a strong electric field of 100,000 volts per meter when it approaches the ground, and that is how it destroys communications facilities and electricity grids…the discovery of the electromagnetic pulse … in the high-altitude nuclear explosion test process has given it recognition as an important strike method.
North Korea’s development of a super-EMP weapon that generates 100,000 volts/meter is a technological watershed more threatening than development of an H-Bomb and ICBM — because even the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the best protected U.S. military forces, are EMP hardened to survive only 50,000 volts/meter.
During a 2008 exchange with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) in testimony before Congress, EMP Commission Chairman William Robert Graham warned that Russia has super-EMP weapons, and apparently transferred that technology to North Korea:
BARTLETT: It is my understanding that, in interviewing some Russian generals…they told you that the Soviets had developed a "super-EMP" enhanced weapon that could produce 200 kilovolts per meter at the center?
GRAHAM: Yes, Mr. Bartlett. We engaged two senior Russian generals — who were also lecturers and authors from their general staff academy, who had written about advanced weapons…and they said a number of interesting things. One was that, in fact, the Russians had developed what they called the "Super-EMP" weapon that could generate fields in the range of 200 kilovolts per meter. And we had seen in other open literature that the Russians appeared to be using that figure as an upper bound for the kind of EMP that could be produced by nuclear weapons ... They also told us that there were Russian and other technologists, engineers and scientists, who were working with North Korea and receiving Western wages, they emphasized helping North Korea with the design of its nuclear weapons....
BARTLETT: This is about, what, four times higher than anything we ever built or tested to, in terms of EMP hardening?
BARTLETT: Which means that, even if you were some hundreds of miles away from that, that it would be somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 kilovolts per meter at the margins of our country, for instance?
GRAHAM: Yes. Over much of the margin, yes.
BARTLETT: So, we aren't sure that much of our military would still be operable after that robust laydown. Is that correct?...
GRAHAM: We designed both the missiles and their bases and the strategic communications systems during the Cold War to be able to survive and operate through EMP fields on the order of 50 kilovolts per meter, which was our concern at the time, before we realized that weapons could be designed that had larger EMP fields.
For the non-technical person, what does the above all mean?
It means North Korea could win a nuclear war.
It means a North Korean EMP attack could paralyze the U.S. nuclear deterrent and prevent U.S. retaliation, perhaps even by U.S. submarines at sea that cannot launch missiles without receiving an Emergency Action Message from the president. U.S. aircraft carriers and air, naval, and ground forces in the theater are also potentially vulnerable to EMP, which could “level the playing field” for invasion of South Korea. North Korea’s relatively low-tech conventional forces, significantly less vulnerable to EMP than U.S. and allied high-tech forces, would become a strategic advantage.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry served as chief of staff to the Congressional EMP Commission. Previously, he served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA.