WASHINGTON – North Korea’s apparently successful launch of a three-stage rocket with a range that could reach the United States has U.S. officials concerned about the Hermit Kingdom’s potential to launch an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack.
North Korea is not assessed to be able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit on a long-range rocket – at least not yet – even though it has an active nuclear weapons development program.
The concern over North Korea’s potential to develop the capability to launch an EMP attack is due to the country’s instability and isolation and the defiance it has shown – even to close friends China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow have been unable to influence the behavior of North Korea’s leaders.
China already has expressed concern with North Korean officials over the launch, and the United Nations Security Council, on which China is a permanent member, already has condemned it.
After the North’s failed launch last April, the Security Council demanded that Pyongyang stop further launch attempts using what amounts to ballistic missile technology. North Korea has been a member of the U.N. since 1991.
Sources say that North Korea is steeped in symbolism, and the launch was to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the death of dictator Kim Jung Il, father of the current leader, 28-year-old Kim Jung Un. It also comes before the South Korean presidential election on Dec. 19 and Japan’s next general election scheduled for Dec. 16 to elect members of its parliament, or Diet.
The missile launched, the Unha-3, is a three-stage Taepodong-2 missile.
Its technology is a little better than North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, since the country is actually an exporter of missile technology to nations such as Iran, Syria, Libya and Egypt.
The success of the launch of its Taepodong-2 also may help bolster the potential for future missile sales. Informed sources say that representatives from the four Middle East countries were on hand for the latest rocket launch.
While the North Koreans said that the launch was to put a satellite into orbit, Western experts agree that the same technological know-how provides the capability to send a warhead as far as the United States.
With the knowledge of orbiting capability, experts say, such a power projection could could give North Korea the ability to reach even beyond California. An orbiting warhead could be placed anywhere and released on command to de-orbit and hit any location within the U.S.
Or, North Korea could explode an orbiting warhead in the atmosphere some 150 miles above a target, creating an electromagnetic pulse that could knock out the highly vulnerable grid system of the U.S.
Experts agree that such an EMP exploding high above Kansas, for example, would knock out a majority of America’s national grid system.
This scenario, which isn’t too far-fetched given the latest technical demonstration, recently was depicted in the popular movie “Red Dawn,” in which the North Koreans use an EMP to knock out the U.S. electrical grid system in the Northwest.
In the movie, the North Koreans knock out all electricity as well as all command and control and communications and the ability to detect such a threat.
With the help of the Russians, as shown in the movie, the North Koreans are able to stage a land invasion on the U.S.
For years, U.S. experts have expressed concern about the catastrophic impact of an EMP event either from a nuclear attack or a massive solar storm, as revealed in the comprehensive 2008 congressional report by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. The EMP commission pointed out:
The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.
The increasingly pervasive use of electronics of all forms represents the greatest source of vulnerability to attack by EMP. Electronics are used to control, communicate, compute, store, manage, and implement nearly every aspect of United States (U.S.) civilian systems. When a nuclear explosion occurs at high altitude, the EMP signal it produces will cover the wide geographic region within the line of sight of the detonation.
This broad band, high amplitude EMP, when coupled into sensitive electronics, has the capability to produce widespread and long lasting disruption and damage to the critical infrastructures that underpin the fabric of U.S. society.
Because of the ubiquitous dependence of U.S. society on the electrical power system its vulnerability to an EMP attack, coupled with the EMP’s particular damage mechanisms, creates the possibility of long-term, catastrophic consequences. The implicit invitation to take advantage of this vulnerability, when coupled with increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, is a serious concern. A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously. There is also a possibility of functional collapse of grids beyond the exposed area, as electrical effects propagate from one region to another.
The launch is giving the North Koreans the ability to glean valuable information about launching an EMP to wreak havoc on the U.S. national grid system.
It also represents a serious U.S. intelligence failure of North Korean capabilities, according to informed sources. The failure comes in the surprise that such a launch had occurred, according to sources.
U.S. satellites had detected the possibility of a launch, but at one point the North Koreans stood down from launch preparations, claiming technical problems. But they had concealed last-minute launch preparations in what sources say was probably a serious North Korean deception and disinformation effort.
For years, it has been known to the U.S. intelligence community that the North Koreans are experts in the art of deception and concealment.
Experts believe that in addition to a new military capability, the launch was designed to give the North Koreans greater influence in diplomatic talks and to obtain more humanitarian assistance.
In a country in which vast numbers of the population are starving, the government has devoted its limited resources to ambitious missile and nuclear weapons programs. The effort gives the leadership greater leverage in future international discussions along with its symbolic value.
Officials also see the launch as a means for Kim Jong Un to consolidate his own power grip and display North Korea’s military capabilities.
North Korea today has a million troops opposite across the Demilitarized Zone, which isn’t far from South Korea’s capital of Seoul. There are some 34,000 U.S. troops sandwiched between the South Korean capital and the DMZ.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for the WND/ G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected]