President Trump’s Dec. 18, 2017, National Security Strategy identified a top priority need to counter vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure to “existential threats” from “electromagnetic attacks.” He should urgently counter the existential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat that Kim Jong-un has identified as a “strategic goal.” Note the Great Leader recently threatened to use the “nuclear button on his desk.”
The president must urgently overcome administration and congressional resistance that has undercut past efforts to respond to this danger, as authoritatively discussed by the chairman and chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission that for 17 years sought to wake up the powers that be and the American people. These threats have been and continue to be ignored or discounted by “conventional wisdom.”
Six months ago, conventional wisdom was that North Korea would take years before threatening the United States with a nuclear attack, which I disputed in “North Korea Dreams of Turning Out the Lights.” Within a month, the intelligence community reportedly acknowledged North Korea had up to 60 nuclear weapons that could be fitted for delivery on its ballistic missiles — see “North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say.”
Essentially at the same time, North Korea demonstrated an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach any American city and tested a large-yield hydrogen bomb (H-Bomb), demonstrating it understands nuclear weapons design fundamentals.
Over a decade ago, the EMP Commission was informed that Russia “accidentally” passed to North Korea how to build a low-yield “Super-EMP” weapon — which may have been tested several times during the past several years, but counted by conventional wisdom as failures.
Connecting the dots, North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be carried by any of its existing ballistic missiles today to be detonated over the atmosphere and create EMP attacks, which, in turn, would meet its claimed “strategic goal.” Moreover, a September 3 CNN report implied that North Korea’s boasts it can make such capabilities “in volume.”
Thus, North Korea can already use EMP attacks to “turn out the lights in South Korea” and wherever they might reach with their demonstrated ballistic missile capabilities — leveling the playing field as part of an attack strategy that could overwhelm U.S. forces in the region.
Nevertheless, current conventional wisdom foolishly is that North Korea still has to demonstrate its weapons can be carried by an attacking reentry vehicle that can survive the intensely hot reentry into the earth’s atmosphere with sufficient accuracy to attack a city. However, an EMP attack would not require reentry into the atmosphere or any notable accuracy.
More important, conventional wisdom is ignoring another major EMP threat: Even a high altitude demonstration test over open ocean areas, well away from any populated land area, could create havoc throughout the world. This possibility exists because of the world’s dependence on the undersea cables that are likely vulnerable to the EMP from such a high altitude burst.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the U.K.’s most senior military officer, recently emphasized that cutting or disrupting the undersea cables in well-known locations, criss-crossing the seabed connecting counties and continents, would “immediately and potentially catastrophically” affect the international economy.
These undersea cables transmit an estimated 97 percent of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions — and their vulnerability poses a “new risk to our way of life.”
Jonathan Beale elaborated this concern in his Dec. 15, 2017 BBC article, which in turn referenced a Policy Exchange report “Undersea Cables, Indispensable, Insecure” that focused on the threat of physical attacks. These reports emphasized Russia’s threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (NATO), but the threat actually is global and involves much more than concerns about Russia.
Mr. Peach rhetorically asked, “Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living?”
Certainly, I can — and in particular for the rapidly developing North Korean threat and Kim Jong-un’s announced strategic goal for an EMP attack capability. Given the density of undersea cables, imagine the impact of the EMP from high altitude nuclear detonations over the Pacific Ocean and/or other locations. It precisely poses Mr. Peach’s concern.
Even ill-placed atmospheric testing would likely trigger Mr. Peach’s concerns — as the Foundation for Resilient Societies emphasized in its pertinent report, Five High Consequence Scenarios for North Korean Atmospheric Nuclear Tests, that there are no “low risk” or “low impact” North Korean testing options, including those that impact China’s commercial interests.
Perhaps President Trump can use this fact in his efforts to get China’s and Russia’s help to throttle back — instead of aiding — North Korea’s persistent efforts to threaten America and our allies around the world with nuclear attack.
In any case, we must get beyond the legacy of allowing “conventional wisdom” to blind us to truly existential threats already posed by North Korea. And we must take effective initiatives to protect our critical infrastructure, through hardening that infrastructure and building effective defenses against the existing and growing ballistic missile threat.
Henry F. Cooper was the U.S. ambassador to the Defense and Space Talks during the Reagan administration and director of the Strategic Defense Initiative during the George H.W. Bush administration.