The Buzz

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

Moreover, an EMP attack could be made by a North Korean satellite. The design of an EMP or even a super-EMP weapon could be relatively small and lightweight, resembling the US 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 that presently orbit the Earth. The south polar trajectory of KMS-3 and KMS-4 evades US Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radars and National Missile Defenses, resembling 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 on the United States.[3]

Kim Jong Un has threatened to reduce the United States to “ashes” with “nuclear thunderbolts” and threatened to retaliate for US 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.[4]

Addressing Misinformation

Recent assessments by Jeffrey Lewis and Jack Liu regarding North Korea’s EMP capabilities have some fundamental flaws.[5]

For starters, in his article, Jeffrey Lewis claimed that “just one string of street lights failed in Honolulu” during the 1962 Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test, and that this is proof of EMP’s harmlessness.[6] In fact, the EMP knocked out 36 strings of street lights, caused a telecommunications microwave relay station to fail, burned out HF (high frequency) radio links (used for long-distance communications), set off burglar alarms, and caused other damage. The Hawaiian Islands also did not experience a catastrophic protracted blackout because they were on the far edge of the EMP field contour, where effects are weakest; are surrounded by an ocean, which mitigates EMP effects; and were still in an age dominated by vacuum tube electronics. In addition, the slow pulse (E3) component of the EMP waveform only couples effectively to very long electric power transmission lines present on large continents, but were in short supply in Hawaii.

Starfish Prime was not the only test of this kind. Russia, in 1961-62, also conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear bursts to test EMP effects over Kazakhstan, an industrialized area nearly as large as Western Europe.[7] That test damaged the Kazakh electric grid.[8] Moreover, modern electronics, in part because they are designed to operate at much lower voltages, are much more vulnerable to EMP than the electronics of 1962 exposed to Starfish Prime and the Kazakh nuclear tests. A similar EMP event over the US today would be an existential threat.[9]

In his article, Lewis also suggested that vehicle transportation would continue after an EMP event based on the fact that only 6 of 55 vehicles were shut down by a single simulated EMP test on vehicles.[10] However, the EMP test protocol limited testing vehicles only to upset, not to damage, because the EMP Commission could not afford to repair damaged cars. Even with this limitation, one vehicle was still damaged, indicating that at least 2 percent of vehicles were severely affected by EMP damage. Over 50 years of EMP testing indicates that full field damage to vehicles would probably be much higher than 2 percent. Modern vehicles are even more susceptible to EMP attack because of their much larger complement of electronics than present in the vehicles tested by the Commission more than a decade ago. Furthermore, vehicles cannot run without fuel and gas stations cannot operate without electricity. Gas pumps could also be damaged in an EMP attack.

In an article by Jack Liu, he asserts in a footnote that because EMP from atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada did not blackout Las Vegas, therefore EMP is no threat. However, the nuclear tests he describes were all endo-atmospheric tests that do not generate appreciable EMP fields beyond a range of about 5 miles. The high-altitude EMP (HEMP) threat of interest requires exo-atmospheric detonation, at 30 kilometers altitude or above, and produces EMP out to ranges of hundreds to thousands of miles.

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