North Korea’s launch Wednesday (Tuesday in the U.S.) of an intercontinental ballistic missile should focus our attention on the threat of the rogue nation launching an electromagnetic pulse attack that could wipe out the electric power grid serving millions of people in the U.S. and Canada.
Such an attack has been downplayed by some and made the subject of fear-mongering by others over the years. But while it sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, an electromagnetic pulse attack has become a larger issue in the past few months due to North Korea’s missile tests and stated goal of developing the capability to mount such a devastating strike.
An electromagnetic pulse is a side effect of an atmospheric nuclear detonation that could potentially damage or destroy all electrical devices and the electric grid within the line of sight of the blast. The higher the explosion, the wider the effect. A North Korean missile carrying a nuclear weapon exploding over the U.S. could cause an electromagnetic pulse.
The result of an electromagnetic pulse wouldn’t just mean no iPhones for a few hours. If enough electric power transformer stations are affected, it would mean no power to millions of people for weeks or even many months.
The result of an electromagnetic pulse wouldn’t just mean no iPhones for a few hours. If enough electric power transformer stations are affected, it would mean no power to millions of people for weeks or even many months. Such an attack on a densely populated area like New York City or Los Angeles would dwarf the power shortages in Puerto Rico caused when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in September.
It all starts to sound very post-apocalyptic when you realize this means no lights or other electric-powered devices in homes and businesses, no water filtration, no regional food hubs, no transportation grid – none of the things we take for granted in modern civilization.
For awhile, the concerns that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un would launch an electromagnetic pulse attack were mostly tangential and hypothetical. There weren’t that many signs the North was planning such a strike. That changed in September, when Kim’s regime launched its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date.
News accounts at the time focused on how large the nuclear blast was and how close in time the launch was to the previous one, both signs that the North was more serious than ever before.
But most reporters missed a key threat that appeared at the bottom of Kim’s public statement, when he bragged that North Korea had harnessed “a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals.”
So now we know. Launching an electromagnetic pulse attacks against its enemies is one of North Korea’s strategic goals. And for North Korea, the United States is the top enemy.
This was the first time Kim had ever publicly threatened such a strike. Will he order it? And can North Korea even pull it off? How successfully would it be? We don’t know the answers to these critically important questions.
Hopefully, North Korea will never try launching an electromagnetic pulse attack against the U.S. or any other nation. And if the North tried it, we all hope it would fail. But while you hope for the best, you have to prepare for the worst.
Unfortunately, the United States isn’t preparing. On Sept. 30, the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat of Electromagnetic Pulse to the United States of America shut its doors after a failure to secure funding from Congress.
The good news is utility companies in the U.S. are at least trying to gauge the threat.
“They are more than a year into a three-year programme, funded by about 60 electricity firms, to understand the potential impact of (an electromagnetic pulse) attack on the generation and transmission of electricity, and to find ways to shield the network,” noted The Economist, after North Korea’s September test.
These sorts of studies are exactly what we need. There are those out there who are adamant that they know what will happen if there’s an electromagnetic pulse attack against the United States – people who range from alarmist to naysayer and everything in between. Don’t take their word for it. The truth is that nobody knows for sure.
There are large engineering firms with patents for electromagnetic pulse protective devices. The U.S. military has hardened a number of its assets. Various utility companies say they’ve got it under control.
But none of this means the problem is solved. There are no best practices. There are no industry standards. There aren't the proper regulations in place.
The studies out there are few. Is our technology more or less vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse attack than the technology of the 1960s? We just don’t know. And that’s a great cause for concern.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union experienced a small version of the impact of an electromagnetic pulse firsthand during their atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1960s, with the latter even testing it over Kazakhstan and temporarily knocking out the grid for millions of people.
These days, worries about a U.S. war with Russia have greatly diminished. And while some Russian military doctrines still include electromagnetic pulse strikes in the litany of available offensive strikes, the weapon was effectively banned when both countries signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, along with over 100 other nations.
A handful of countries never signed the deal, however, including North Korea.
Given North Korea’s continued testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, we need to do more to be ready for an electromagnetic pulse attack from the North, even if there is only a small chance Kim would be reckless enough to launch it.