On June 9, the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal published an article by Henry F. Cooper titled “North Korea Dreams of Turning Out the Lights”. It discusses the possibility of an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) attack by North Korea, and makes the point that this is a lot more likely than we might think/hope. Since the WSJ’s online version is behind a pay wall, I can’t link the article here, but I’ll summarize some key points and quote others.
- North Korea now probably has the ability to detonate a nuclear weapon 40 miles above Seoul – in fact, “a recent North Korean medium-range missile test that was widely reported to have exploded midflight could in fact have been deliberately detonated at an altitude of 40 miles.”
- Such an attack on Seoul would “inflict catastrophic damage on South Korea’s electric power grid, leading to a prolonged blackout that could have deadly consequences.” Moreover, since the US has about 29,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea, plus more at sea nearby, such an attack would make it very hard for the US to respond to North Korean aggression (say, if North Korea were to invade the South after an EMP attack – note this is my inference. It isn’t stated directly by the author).
- In 2001, Congress established a commission to study this danger. The chairman of the commission, William R. Graham, “noted that several Russian generals told the commissioners in 2004 that the designs for a ‘super EMP nuclear weapon’ had been transferred to North Korea.”
- An EMP attack using a nuclear warhead with a yield of “only” 10 to 20 kilotons could “inflict catastrophic damage to unhardened electronics across hundreds of miles of surface territory.” This is the range of yields that North Korea has already successfully tested. So there would be no need for them to wait until they had produced a much more powerful device.
- North Korea wouldn’t need to develop a long-range ballistic missile in order to attack the US. For one thing, there is no need for great accuracy – detonation almost anywhere over the US would produce devastating effects. For another, there would be no “need to worry about developing a reliable re-entry vehicle for their ballistic missiles” (which would be required for a conventional nuclear strike).
- And there might be an even easier way to strike the US: According to William Graham in a recent blog post, North Korea could launch a “short-range missile off a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to 30 kilometers burst height by balloon. Even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers altitude could blackout the Eastern Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of US electricity. Moreover, an EMP attack could be made by a North Korean satellite.”
The article concludes “The US and South Korea should ensure their ballistic-missile defenses are effective and harden their electric power grids against EMP effects as soon as possible. The day of reckoning could come sooner than anyone in either country thinks.”
Have a nice day!
The views and opinions expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of Deloitte.