electrical-grid

North Korea conducted its 6th test of a nuke today, reiterating Kim Jong Un’s desperate need to be seen and taken seriously by major world players.

This time, however, instead of simply threatening to hit a major US city or a target in Japan, Kim has decided to poke those that worry about an Electromagnetic Pulse attack — or EMP — an airborne attack that detonates over the US and has the possibility of knocking out the US electric grid. Kim, according to The Wall Street Journal, has outright threatened such an attack:

North Korea said it has “succeeded in making a more developed” hydrogen bomb and mounting it on the tip of a long-range missile, and threatened a high-altitude nuclear blast that experts fear could wipe out electrical networks in the U.S. Leader Kim Jong Un witnessed a hydrogen bomb being mounted onto a new intercontinental ballistic missile while visiting the Nuclear Weapons Institute, North Korea’s state media said Sunday. The state media also published what experts said could be the North’s first photos of a purported hydrogen bomb.

The fact that Kim is boasting about having an H-bomb leads some experts to question his credibility (more than usual I guess) because the H-bomb (which is essentially a chain-reaction bomb using both fission and fusion rather than the simpler fission-based, atomic bomb) is larger and may require a delivery mechanism that looks very different from the one Kim was seen posing next to in a photo Sunday.

In photos published by North Korean state media alongside its Sunday report, Mr. Kim was seen gesturing at a bulbous silver device that appeared capable of containing the two nuclear devices that would be necessary for a thermonuclear blast, as well as a possible outer shell for the device. “There are a lot of things that are plausible about it…but we don’t have X-ray vision, so we can’t see into that,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., who said she believed the North was showing off the device in advance of a possible test.

In any event, experts and world leaders are taking seriously Kim’s need to develop the technology as a way to stay relevant. According to the White House, President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are said to be discussing ways “to maximize pressure on North Korea.”

There’s debate over whether an EMP attack would be worse than an outright bomb detonated in a major metropolitan area, with some experts suggesting the EMP threat is remote and others saying the US downplays the threat at their peril.

The Hill noted at the beginning of August that, “[an] EMP itself is harmless to people, destroying only electronics. But by destroying electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, the indirect effects of EMP can kill far more people in the long-run than nuclear blasting a city.” The Hill piece also speculated that Japan may be the real target of North Korea’s threats of an EMP:

Kim’s strategy is to sever U.S. security guarantees to South Korea and Japan by raising the stakes too high—raising the specter of nuclear war—and through “nuclear diplomacy” to cow the U.S. and its allies into submission. In this scenario, North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon at 96 kilometers HOB (height of burst) over Tokyo. The EMP field extends from the Japanese capital to a radius of 1,080 kilometers, covering all of Japan’s major home islands. Virtually all of Japan’s major military bases and seaports are covered by the EMP field, rendering them inoperable. Traffic control towers and systems are damaged and blacked-out stopping air and rail traffic. Highways are jammed with stalled vehicles. Communications systems are damaged or destroyed or in blackout. Worse, Japan’s population of 126 million people is at risk because suddenly there is no running water or food coming into the cities.

It would, of course, not be outside the ordinary course of events for a hostile nation to use our tendency to rush to the defense of our allies against us. Far more interesting, and despite what the New York Times calls Trump’s “harsh rhetoric,” is Trump’s use of Twitter to remind South Korea and China that their economic prosperity (i.e. trade deals with the US et al) is directly threatened if they do not step up and take a role in condemning North Korea. Trump appears poised to build an Asian coalition ready to denounce North Korea. We’ll see if he’s able to pull it off.