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A North Korean Nuclear EMP Attack: The Threat America Downplays at Its Peril

Analysts like Jack Liu and Jeffrey Lewis are to be commended for their interest in educating the public about North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and endeavoring to provide their readers with “informed analysis.” However, in a series of recent articles, both analysts have written off the possibility of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from North Korea as “unlikely” and “science fiction” because they believe the 10 to 20 kiloton nuclear weapons currently possessed by North Korea are incapable of making an effective EMP attack. This dismisses the consensus view of EMP experts who have advanced degrees in physics and electrical engineering along with several decades of experience in the field—with access to classified data throughout that time—and who have conducted EMP tests on a wide variety of electronic systems, beginning in 1963.

(This first appeared in 38 North here.)

By way of background, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack was established by Congress in 2001 to advise the Congress, the President, the Department of Defense and other departments and agencies of the US Government on the nuclear EMP threat to military systems and civilian critical infrastructures. The EMP Commission was re-established in 2015 with its charter broadened to include natural EMP from solar storms, all manmade EMP threats, cyber-attack, sabotage and Combined-Arms Cyber Warfare. The EMP Commission charter gives it access to all relevant classified and unclassified data and the power to levy analysis upon the Department of Defense.

In the interest of better informing 38 North readers about the EMP threat, we offer this commentary to correct errors of fact, analysis, and myths about EMP.

Primitive and “Super-EMP” Nuclear Weapons are Both EMP Threats

The EMP Commission finds that even primitive, low-yield nuclear weapons are such a significant EMP threat that rogue states, like North Korea, or terrorists may well prefer using a nuclear weapon for EMP attack instead of destroying a city.[1] In its 2004 report, the Commission cautioned: “Certain types of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons can be employed to generate potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas, and designs for variants of such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for a quarter-century.”

In 2004, two Russian generals, both EMP experts, warned the EMP Commission that the design for Russia’s super-EMP warhead, capable of generating high intensity EMP fields of 200,000 volts per meter, was “accidentally” transferred to North Korea, and that due to “brain drain,” Russian scientists were in North Korea, helping with their missile and nuclear weapon programs. South Korean military intelligence told their press that Russian scientists are in North Korea helping develop an EMP nuclear weapon. In 2013, a Chinese military commentator stated North Korea has super-EMP nuclear weapons.[2]

Super-EMP weapons are low-yield and designed to produce not a big kinetic explosion, but rather a high level of gamma rays, which generate the high-frequency E1 EMP that is most damaging to the broadest range of electronics. North Korean nuclear tests—including the first in 2006, which was predicted to the EMP Commission two years in advance by the two Russian EMP experts—mostly have yields consistent with the size of a super-EMP weapon. The Russian generals’ accurate prediction of when the North would perform its first nuclear test, and the yield being consistent with a super-EMP weapon, indicates their warning about a North Korean super-EMP weapon should be taken very seriously.

EMP Threat from Satellites

While most analysts are fixated on when in the future North Korea will develop highly reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles, guidance systems, and reentry vehicles capable of striking a US city, the present threat from EMP is largely ignored. An EMP attack does not require an accurate guidance system because the area of effect, having a radius of hundreds or thousands of kilometers, is so large. No reentry vehicle is needed because the warhead is detonated at high-altitude, above the atmosphere. Missile reliability matters little because only one missile has to work to make an EMP attack.

For instance, 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. While such lower-altitude EMP attacks would not cover the whole US mainland, as would an attack at higher-altitude (300 kilometers), 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.