North Korea’s official statements following its recent underground nuclear test for the first time revealed plans to use its nuclear weapons to create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported North Korea’s weapon was “a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke which can be detonated even at high altitudes for superpowerful EMP attack according to strategic goals.” And the official communist party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on Monday noted, “In general, the strong electromagnetic pulse generated from nuclear bomb explosions between 30 kilometers and 100 kilometers above the ground can severely impair electronic devices, electric machines, and electromagnetic grids, or destroy electric cables and safety devices.”
Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s foreign ministry has vowed that if the regime’s “supreme dignity” is threatened, it will “preemptively annihilate” the countries that threaten it, with all means “including the nuclear ones.” Thus, a North Korean nuclear attack on America is an urgent concern.
Iran is not far behind. And the mullahs will buy from North Korea what they need with the billions of dollars released to them by the terrible 2015 deal with Iran that legitimized a pathway to their own nuclear weapons.
It is well known that high-altitude nuclear explosions can create EMP effects that shut down the electric power grid across much if not all of the United States. Thus, North Korea now seeks, if it does not already have, the capability to pose an existential threat to all Americans. Without electricity, our just-in-time economy would quickly halt and most Americans would die within months from starvation, disease and societal collapse.
There are indications that Mr. Kim may be preparing for additional tests, perhaps to test our resolve by firing missiles toward our major Pacific base at Guam.
We should be prepared to use our effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to counter this threat. Test demonstrations could have deterrent value, and our leaders should consider such a possibility.
Nearby U.S. and Japanese Aegis BMD ships could provide this demonstration. Of course, those Aegis BMD ship captains need to be pre-authorized to fire the interceptors under their command against this rapidly unfolding attack — and of course their crews must be trained and prepared.
Tests over a decade ago demonstrated that Aegis BMD ships may intercept such attacking missiles while they are on the way outside the atmosphere, before they exceed the range of our current Aegis BMD systems and then on their way down toward Guam. We and our Japanese allies should deploy — and demonstrate — Aegis BMD ships to accomplish this kind of protection.
Recall that this capability of intercepting high-altitude, high-velocity targets was demonstrated in 2008, when our Navy’s first minimally tested interceptor was used to shoot down a satellite traveling faster than an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
President Trump could soften this initiative by saying that America has no wish to interfere with North Korea’s legitimate space exploration, so long as Kim Jong-un permits the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its satellite payloads before they are launched. Otherwise he should indicate we will shoot them down to protect our security interests. Needed inspections could employ technology developed to verify treaties between the United States and Russia.
China is very important if we are to develop a lasting situation to contain North Korea. We are discussing how to work together with China to exterminate ISIS. But we still have very serious differences with the Chinese, and unwanted military encounters could make us greater enemies and future contacts very difficult.
U.S. and Japanese Aegis BMD ships are already in the region. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea and Guam can be an important adjunct to these Aegis BMD capabilities. Neither should be traded away in these discussions with China.
Finally, North Korea poses a major threat with its massive conventional firepower aimed at Seoul and the American bases in southern Korea — sufficient to wipe them out many times over. Mr. Kim has it set up so that he can unleash this firepower in an instant. As a countermeasure to this threat, Israel’s Iron Dome Defense might be considered to help defend Seoul. But there should be no misunderstanding over the severe threat North Korea poses to South Korea.
Congress remains the bedrock of our system of government. As the House and Senate conferees consider the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 during the next two weeks, they should ensure that these urgent EMP threat issues are addressed.
Most of all, they should reinstate the current EMP Commission, which otherwise goes out of business at the end of September. For 17 years, the commission has been a lone voice warning of the now most apparent existential EMP threat. Now is no time to allow it to go out of business and consider a new commission, as the House has proposed.
• Henry F. Cooper was President Reagan’s chief negotiator in the Geneva Defense and Space Talks and President George H.W. Bush’s Strategic Defense Initiative director. Robert Laidley is president of the Atlantic and Conservation Institute.
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