After massive intelligence failures grossly underestimating North Korea’s long-range missile capabilities, number of nuclear weapons, warhead miniaturization, and proximity to manufacturing a hydrogen bomb, the biggest North Korean threat to the United States remains unacknowledged. North Korea has two satellites in orbit, and more to follow, that could be nuclear-armed for a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that would black out North America for months to years, killing millions.
An EMP attack doesn’t require accurate guidance systems because the area of effect, having a radius of hundreds of miles, is very large. No re-entry vehicle is needed because the warhead detonates at a high altitude, above the atmosphere. This point appears to be beyond the comprehension of most, including secretaries of defense, the military leadership and the usual “experts” who appear in the press.
The design of a super-EMP weapon could be relatively small and lightweight, resembling the U.S. W-79 Enhanced Radiation Warhead nuclear artillery shell of the 1980s, designed in the 1950s. Such a device could fit inside North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 (KMS-3) and Kwangmyongsong-4 (KMS-4) satellites and pose a potential EMP threat to every nation on Earth.
Two Russian generals warned the EMP Commission in 2004 that Russia’s super-EMP warhead design was transferred accidentally to North Korea.
North Korea’s KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites were launched to the south on polar trajectories and passed over the United States on their first orbit. The south polar trajectory evades U.S. ballistic missile early-warning radars and national missile defenses, making the satellites resemble a Russian secret weapon developed during the Cold War called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) that would have used a nuclear-armed satellite to make a surprise EMP attack.
Ambassador Henry Cooper, former director of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, and a pre-eminent expert on missile defenses and space weapons, has written numerous articles warning about the potential North Korean EMP threat from their satellites.
On Sept. 20, 2016, Mr. Cooper wrote: “U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors are designed to intercept a few North Korean ICBMs that approach the United States over the North Polar region. But current U.S. BMD systems are not arranged to defend against even a single ICBM that approaches the United States from over the South Polar region, which is the direction toward which North Korea launches its satellites. This is not a new idea. The Soviets pioneered and tested just such a specific capability decades ago — we call it a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). So, North Korea doesn’t need an ICBM to create this existential threat. It could use its demonstrated satellite launcher to carry a nuclear weapon over the South Polar region and detonate it over the United States to create a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse. The result could be to shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of up to 90 percent of all Americans — as the EMP Commission testified over eight years ago.”
Former NASA rocket scientist James Oberg visited North Korea’s Sohae space launch base, witnessed elaborate measures undertaken to conceal space launch payloads, and concludes in a 2017 article that the EMP threat from North Korea’s satellites should be taken seriously: “There have been fears expressed that North Korea might use a satellite to carry a small nuclear warhead into orbit and then detonate it over the United States for an EMP strike. These concerns seem extreme and require an astronomical scale of irrationality on the part of the regime. The most frightening aspect, I’ve come to realize, is that exactly such a scale of insanity is now evident in the rest of their ‘space program.’”
That doomsday scenario, it now seems, is plausible enough to compel the United States to take active measures to ensure that no North Korean satellite, unless thoroughly inspected before launch, be allowed to reach orbit and ever overfly the United States.
Kim Jong-un has threatened to reduce the United States to “ashes” with “nuclear thunderbolts” and to retaliate for U.S. diplomatic and military pressure by “ordering officials and scientists to complete preparations for a satellite launch as soon as possible” amid “the enemies’ harsh sanctions and moves to stifle” the North. The North Korean press asserts readiness for “any form of war,” including their satellite with “strengthening of the nuclear deterrent and legitimate artificial satellite launch, which are our fair-and-square self-defensive choice.”
Moreover: “The nuclear weapons we possess are, precisely, the country’s sovereignty, right to live and dignity. Our satellite that cleaves through space is the proud sign that unfolds the future of the most powerful state in the world.” The same article, like many others, warns North Korea is making “constant preparations so that we can fire the nuclear warheads, which have been deployed for actual warfare for the sake of national defense, at any moment!”
An earlier generation immediately understood the alarming strategic significance of Sputnik in 1957, heralding the nuclear missile and space race, yet few today understand or even care about the strategic significance of North Korea’s satellites, consistent with a widespread ignorance about an EMP.
• William R. Graham is chairman of the congressional EMP Commission, and served as President Reagan’s White House science adviser and administrator of NASA. Peter Vincent Pry is chief of staff of the congressional EMP Commission and served in the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA. This article first published online in The Washington Times Commentary section on Aug. 15, 2017.