North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who is actively building a nuclear arms program, recently threatened to “reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness.” Yet while the world watches each new North Korean nuclear and missile test with growing alarm, a potentially more serious — and more realistic — North Korean threat is overlooked: a nuclear-based electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Imagine an attack that could come without warning, knock out most of the U.S. electrical grid, and ultimately result in the death of 90 percent of the population. That’s the dire estimate recently presented to a U.S. House Homeland Security committee. Here are some of the other findings from that report by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.
4. What is an EMP Attack?
An electromagnetic pulse attack would involve a nuclear warhead, or multiple warheads, detonated at high altitude. The explosion(s) would be designed to create a high gamma ray level that could damage or destroy electronics hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Such effects were mostly unknown until 1962, when a U.S. test, Starfish Prime, exploded a nuclear bomb 250 miles over the remote Pacific. The blast knocked out streetlights and caused communications failures and other electronics damage in Honolulu, almost 900 miles away. According to the recent Homeland Security committee testimony, extensive testing in EMP simulators over decades has “proved modern electronics are over 1 million times more vulnerable to EMP than the electronics of 1962.”
3. North Korea Threatens EMP Attack … And Has Capability
After a 2017 nuclear test, North Korea issued a public statement proclaiming, “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.” Take the statement at face value, or as the empty threat of a rogue dictator, but North Korea has been working for years to develop EMP-strike capability. As far back as 2004, high-ranking Russian military leaders reported to U.S. analysts that North Korea had acquired the capability to build a “Super-EMP” warhead. And reports in more recent years from other intelligence sources concur the nation is working on EMP-strike technology.
There’s been a tendency to underestimate North Korea’s nuclear threat. The U.S. and other nations have until recently scoffed at North Korea’s nuclear and missile technology. According to the Homeland Security committee report, six months ago many experts believed the country had just a handful of primitive nuclear weapons, and no ability to strike the U.S. mainland; now, analysts believe North Korea has dozens of relatively advanced thermonuclear weapons, and the missile capability to strike at least the West Coast of the U.S. … and possibly most of the country.
2. EMP Weapon Might Already Be Ready to Strike
While the focus in recent years has been on North Korea’s rapidly improving ballistic missile technology, that nation might already have EMP weapons in place, ready to strike, today. According to the Homeland Security committee report, the nation launched two satellites earlier this year that cross over the U.S. and could conceivably contain warheads ready to strike the U.S. — or elsewhere — at any moment.
North Korea could launch a more limited EMP attack against the U.S. via a balloon, or a short-range missile off a ship. According to the Homeland Security commission report, “even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers altitude could blackout the Eastern Electric Power Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of U.S. electricity.”
1. Attack Could Ultimately Kill 90% of U.S. Population
This sounds like the tagline for an episode of the TV series Doomsday Preppers here, but a well-executed EMP attack on the U.S., either by North Korea or another rogue nation or terrorists, would be devastating. The power grid would fail across much of the U.S. That would ultimately impact everything: food and water distribution, medical care, transportation, banking, etc.
But could that really result in a death rate of 90 percent? As Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, former Director of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, testified before Congress in 2008: “We don’t have experience with losing the infrastructure in a country with 300 million people, most of whom don’t live in a way that provides for their own food and other needs. We can go back to an era when people did live like that. That would be —10 percent would be 30 million people, and that is probably the range where we could survive as a basically rural economy.”