North Korea Dreams of Turning Out the Lights

From: Wall Street,  by Henry F. Cooper,  on Jun 8, 2017

A satellite photo of Korea illustrates the South’s dependence on electricity. PHOTO: NASA

Pyongyang doesn’t need a perfect missile. Detonating a nuke above Seoul—or L.A.—would sow chaos.

Conventional wisdom holds that it will be years before North Korea can credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack. Kim Jong Un’s scientists are still testing only low-yield nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, and have yet to place them on ballistic missiles capable of reaching America’s West Coast.

While its technological shortcomings have been well documented, North Korea’s desire to provoke a nuclear conflict with the U.S. should not be minimized or ignored. Pyongyang is surely close to getting it right.

For South Korea the danger is more immediate. According to physicist David Albright, the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, the North Koreans have between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons and can build as many as five more every year. If Mr. Kim were to detonate one of these bombs in the atmosphere 40 miles above Seoul, it could inflict catastrophic damage on South Korea’s electric power grid, leading to a prolonged blackout that could have deadly consequences.

The United States has 28,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in South Korea stationed below the 38th parallel—and more at sea nearby. An electromagnetic pulse attack on South Korea could play havoc with America’s ability to mount an effective response to North Korean aggression. One hopes the troops manning the two already-deployed batteries of the Thaad ballistic-missile defense system are prepared for such a scenario (in a concession to China, the newly elected South Korean government suspended this week the deployment of four additional launchers).

In 2001 Congress established a commission to study the danger of an electromagnetic pulse generated by the detonation of a high-altitude nuclear weapon. It concluded that while there would be no blast effects on the ground, critical electricity-dependent infrastructure could be rendered inoperable. The commission’s chairman, William R. Graham, has 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.

Pyongyang, the Russian generals reported, was probably only a few years away from developing super EMP capability. According to Peter Vincent Pry, staff director of the congressional EMP commission, 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.

Was it a dry run for an EMP attack? Detonation at that altitude of a nuclear warhead with a yield of 10 to 20 kilotons—similar to those tested by North Korea—would produce major EMP effects and inflict catastrophic damage to unhardened electronics across hundreds of miles of surface territory. It is a myth that large yield nuclear weapons of hundreds of kilotons are required to produce such effects.

Although some analysts have dismissed the possibility of a successful North Korean EMP attack—either on South Korea or the United States—several factors could make it a more appealing first-strike strategy for Kim Jong Un’s nuclear scientists than a direct, missile-delivered nuclear strike. For one thing, accuracy is not a concern; the North Koreans simply need to get near their target to sow chaos. Nor would they need to worry about developing a reliable re-entry vehicle for their ballistic missiles.

Conventional wisdom aside, a North Korean EMP attack on the U.S. may also not be far-fetched. “North Korea could make an EMP attack against the United States by launching a short-range missile off a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to 30 kilometers burst height by balloon,” wrote Mr. Graham earlier this month on the security blog 38 North. “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.” Two North Korean satellites currently orbit the earth on trajectories that take them over the U.S.

This is not mere theory. In 1962 the United States detonated a 1.4-megaton nuclear warhead over the South Pacific, 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. Designated “Starfish Prime,” the blast destroyed hundreds of street lights in Honolulu, caused electrical surges on airplanes in the area, and damaged at least six satellites. Only Hawaii’s undeveloped electric power-transmission infrastructure prevented a prolonged blackout. It was the era of vacuum-tube electronics. We are living in the digital age.

The U.S. 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.

Mr. 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.

Appeared in the June 9, 2017, print edition.


It’s always interesting to read the comments that accompany an article on EMPs. Among those who are paying attention to the issue, there are just two camps; one that pooh-poohs the idea that North Korea would have the audacity to attack the United States because they (the commenters) believe that our retaliation would be swift and sure and disastrous for Kim and his country.

And the other faction who won’t lose sleep over it, but are concerned that Kim Jong Un is just unhinged enough to, one day, tell his military to “do it,” resulting in immeasurable damage to the U.S. – not a knockout blow, but one from which recovery could take months, perhaps even years.

Let’s look at both positions. The first group, those who believe that Kim is sane and prudent and recognizing that his actions would prompt retaliatory strikes by the U.S., has made a conscious decision that a first-strike against the United States would be suicide.

There are a couple of problems with that supposition. One, we’ve seen little evidence that Kim is sane and prudent, and secondly, that the U.S. would take immediate action and obliterate North Korea. Now in the reign of Trump, that could very well happen – I could see President Trump ordering a nuclear strike on North Korea in response to an attack on us. But, think back to the Obama era. I wouldn’t stake my life on a president like Obama actually doing anything direct and immediate. He would be more likely to direct another naval battle group to the vicinity as a “show of force,” but pull the trigger on a nuclear strike – I seriously doubt it. I believe that, even after being hit, Obama would attempt to negotiate with Kim to prevent “more bloodshed.”

The second group doesn’t want to rely on Kim Jong Un’s sanity (not a good bet) and would prefer to be prepared to withstand a surprise EMP attack by North Korea. The main reason for my siding with this second group is that having read One Second After and written extensively about the destructive capabilities of EMPs, the devastation that could result from a relatively small nuclear device detonated high above the U.S. is difficult to relate to folks who are more worried about work, family, and other pressing everyday problems. They don’t want to hear about the “gloom and doom” that would accompany even a small EMP strike.

Call me paranoid, but Kim’s activities over the past several years show that he continues to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems and has, on multiple occasions, specifically stated that he would strike the United States. I believe that ignoring the totality of North Korea’s actions borders on suicidal. I thank God that we now have someone in the White House who could, if necessary, strike back at an adversary with overwhelming force. 

We could harden our electrical grids relatively cheaply and remove a substantial contributor to the disaster caused by a high-level EMP if only our representatives would act. We’ve seen several bills languish in Congress due to a lack of interest. A few billion would immeasurably improve our recovery by retaining portions of the electrical grid. At one time, the estimate was about $5 dollars per family, per year in the U.S. to harden the grid to survive.

Cheap insurance.

What do YOU think? 




Categories: Political


8 replies

  1. North Korea isn’t the only state that presents a potential threat to the U.S., so I’m all for doing whatever needs to be done to protect the grid. I consider it a no-brainer.


    • No, you’re right, CW. We know that North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia all have that capability. And, it’s possible for terrorists to attack via a ship in coastal waters with a missile purchased from N. Korea or Iran and a small nuke. That wouldn’t plunge the whole country into darkness but could wreak havoc on the East Coast.


  2. “I thank God that we now have someone in the White House who could, if necessary, strike back at an adversary with overwhelming force. ”
    Me too.

    The federal government doesn’t care about EMP attacks. They gamble with our safety. And it doesn’t pay them for re-election.

    Read the book: One Second After. It really opens your eyes and pinpoints the problems that an EMP attack would bring about. The death toll will be horrible.


    • I read it and it is chilling. Unfortunately, it’s all too realistic portrayal of what America would be like IF an EMP strike occurred didn’t penetrate the dolts in D.C. enough to enact legislation to harden our grid.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think it’s actually going to happen. Kim’s a whack job, but it’s a carefully cultivated persona. He’s also clearly a megalomaniac. He’s also a VERY self-involved kid addicted to his creature comforts. Further, he’s well educated, having attended private schools and university in Europe. This is a guy who has Western-style delicacies flown into Pyongyang for his personal consumption. Likes to hang out and cavort with Western celebrities. Thrives on attention, particularly in the media. Jealously and rabidly guards his position of power, to the point of almost indiscriminate killing, even of family members, reminiscent of an ancient Roman emperor. He uses his dictatorial power almost exclusively to enhance his own personal self-interest and hedonistic proclivities. Look at the picture at the top of the page. The entire country is dark with the glaring exception of Pyongyang, where he lives. He has to have electricity in order to enjoy the material benefits the world offers, so electricity he has.

    Is this a man driven by ideological fanaticism, to the point where he’s willing to die for his ideology in order to advance it, like an Iranian mullah consumed by the jihadist idea of a new caliphate and the death of Israel? In no way. In fact, actually dying at all is the absolute last thing he ever wants to happen. He’s the ruler of all he surveys; it’s good to be the king.

    Why does he want to reunify with South Korea? Is it to realize his grandfather’s nationalist dream? Again, look at that picture. If he can take over all that glaring electricity south of his border, and the economic and industrial power of the south, he’ll have access to even more worldly goodies, and legitimacy on the world stage, a further benefit, and a sop to his massive ego.

    What’s the biggest threat to his personal paradise? The United States. But the most cursory glance at recent history shows that since the Carter administration this country hasn’t known how to react to irrational actors. Why has Iran — one of his allies — gotten away with so much nonsense for so long? Fear of the mullahs’ craziness and unpredictability. So, predictably, he adopts the same kind of public persona.

    But this is a smart kid, and he knows that if he actually launches a nuclear attack, ESPECIALLY on the US, he will personally be the target of a retaliation — possibly of a limited nuclear nature — that will result in his own death. That’s unquestionable; the American public would not accept anything less, regardless of who’s President, and that goes double in the Trump era.

    The absolute last thing this kid wants is to actually die. So no, I think it’s extremely unlikely he’s going to launch any kind of preemptive strike. But as long as people THINK he might, he’s the winner in the game.


    • I get it, Brian, you believe Kim to be at least somewhat rational and would want to avoid self-destruction. I get it, but that presupposes that he doesn’t believe that he can mortally wound the U.S. and thus avoid the destruction of his empire. I just believe that we’ve seen enough irrational behavior from him to imagine that if he believes that he could “turn out the lights” on much of North America, he’s just looney enough to consider it.

      Understand that I’m not betting that he will strike. It may not even be him. It could just as easily be Iran since they also have the capability to launch strikes from ships in coastal waters and they already have the nuclear capability. So do the Russians and the Chinese. Again, I’m not betting that one of them WILL strike, but the aftermath of a strike by any of them could be catastrophic.

      I just want to see our electrical grid hardened so that a nuclear EMP doesn’t plunge us into darkness – for months – or years.


  4. For years Kim Jong Un’s actions have been called sabre rattling, but we have no way of knowing when he might stop rattling and start firing. He kills people, including his own family members, with little to no provocation. His military isn’t loyal to him because they agree with his actions, they are loyal out of fear of dying.

    Put me in the group that thinks he’s nuttier than a fruitcake and believes him capable of firing on us at any moment. It’s too bad that the US or someone didn’t assassinate him long ago and free the North Koreans from their misery.


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