North Korea, the country we can’t stop talking about, and Dictator Kim Jong Un are becoming more powerful everyday. But can he destroy America’s power?
A SPECTER is haunting Washington—the specter of nuclear war with North Korea. The idea that the Trump administration should endorse a military solution—and a full-blown war if necessary—to degrade or destroy North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is acquiring a new prominence. Advocates of war argue that the time to hit North Korea is now. They say that time is running out, and that Pyongyang will soon perfect its ability to attack America. Their contention is that America can knock out North Korea’s nuclear program with some “shock and awe”–style bolt from the blue. Finally, they say that a war “over there” would be better than the death of innocent Americans “over here.”
Such thinking is redolent of the Iraq War. Just as the war in Iraq evaded the prediction that it would be a “cakewalk,” so a conflict over North Korea would likely issue in a calamity. There is no widespread public support, as a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll indicates, for a preemptive American strike on North Korea: 67 percent of Americans say Washington should act only if North Korea attacks it or our allies first. Before Washington experiences a fresh spasm of war fever on the Potomac, it’s imperative to examine just why a conflict with North Korea is inimical to America’s national interest. For the notion that America can “totally destroy” North Korea, as President Trump put it, with impunity is not quite persuasive. The result could even be a wider conflict, one that draws in great powers such as Russia and China that would seek to defend what they perceive as their own national interests.
Today, we live an age where America’s greatest strategic advantage—two big oceans that protect us from the great geopolitical struggles in Europe and Asia, both past and present—is no longer the strategic safety blanket it once was, thanks to modern missile technology. Put simply, while the American military is the most destructive force ever devised in human history, such a force cannot guarantee that Washington will eliminate every single North Korean nuclear weapon. Nor can we ensure that if Pyongyang retaliates, potentially with whatever nuclear weapons we miss, that our missile defenses can keep us safe. Quite the contrary.
The truth is that a war with North Korea could be nothing like the First Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Second Gulf War or Libya. Such a conflict could be an epic struggle in which millions of people, on the Korean Peninsula, in Japan and even in the continental United States, could perish. The best path forward is to practice the foreign-policy doctrine that ended the Cold War peacefully: containment. Containment, rather than open conflict or outright appeasement, is not a panacea, but under the circumstances it is the best of the options that Washington can pursue. As during the Cold War, a patient and vigilant strategy can wait out a hostile regime in the expectation that it will eventually crumble. A look at the possible outcomes of a nuclear conflict shows why it is more prudent to adopt this approach than to strike first.
WHEN WE consider the possibility of a military operation against North Korea, it is helpful to take a step back and consider from Pyongyang’s perspective how it might respond. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not wish to counter such a strike by using the full range of his military options, fearing such an attack could unleash his worst fear: regime change.
This is where U.S. military planners begin to get nervous, as North Korea—even despite having an army that looks more like it was outfitted in the 1950s—has many ways to keep us guessing militarily. Kim could opt for less conventional means to instill fear and panic, attacking in an asymmetric manner that would be hard to counter.
For example, Kim could order an attack on South Korea’s vast civilian nuclear infrastructure, unleashing deadly plumes of radioactive fallout. Seoul operates twenty-four nuclear power plants that could all come under various forms of North Korean attack, though they are relatively far from the North. With many of these facilities lumped together, Pyongyang could fire a salvo of missiles at these plants, creating an immediate humanitarian crisis.
The North Koreans could also use their special forces. They could infiltrate the South from existing tunnels to launch terror attacks against such facilities. If North Korea were to destroy just a few reactors, a disaster eclipsing Chernobyl could occur, killing tens of thousands and leaving millions of acres of South Korea an uninhabitable wasteland for generations.
THE ABOVE example is just one of the most basic ways in which North Korea could respond asymmetrically. If we broaden our consideration of what a total war would look like, we find ourselves staring into the nuclear abyss.
Several years ago, I took part in a series of computer-based war games at a reputable think tank in Washington to examine what might happen if North Korea and America engaged in a nuclear conflict. Over the course of a few days, we simulated three scenarios to explore what a war with North Korea would look like, focusing on nuclear-weapons use, and conducting one full war per day in a fast-paced exercise.
The first of these exercises—a small nuclear war, if such a thing exists—imagined a conflict in coming decades, in which North Korea launches conventional weapons in a surprise attack on U.S. and allied forces on the Korean Peninsula, responding to reports that America is considering building up its military might in northeast Asia for a possible attack and regime-change operation.
Kim starts this Second Korean War with an artillery strike on Seoul while firing hundreds of small- and medium-range missiles on targets all over northeast Asia. U.S. and allied forces counterattack, focusing mostly on Kim’s weapons of mass destruction, wiping out what they think is all of them.
Allied forces then move their way up the Korean Peninsula. But Kim, even with his forces battered and bloody, hid four nuclear weapons deep underground. He makes the ultimate decision: to launch a nuclear strike on Seoul and Tokyo. While the allies go on to win the war, Kim’s nuclear attacks—with one warhead each making it past allied missile defenses, detonating in each city—result in over one million people dead and millions more wounded.
From here it gets even worse. As though the above wasn’t bad enough, we pressed forward into a second scenario that begins with North Korea starting a conflict using nuclear weapons in a sort of atomic Pearl Harbor. In this exercise, we assume that U.S. forces are building up in the Asia-Pacific in preparation for a possible regime-change invasion of the North, responding to a demand from the international community for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Sound familiar?
But Kim Jong-un is no fool. He knows that once U.S. forces are in place, they will try to take out his weapons of mass destruction, first from the air and then moving across the thirty-eighth parallel. Kim takes a gamble, and decides that his only course of action is to strike first with his most powerful of weapons. Kim, in what thankfully was just a war game, launches nuclear attacks on Seoul, Pusan, Incheon, Tokyo, Sendai and Nagoya, with one nuclear weapon hitting each city. Over two million people perish in the atomic fire before Kim is defeated.
The last war game, however, was the most shocking of them all. We assumed a similar scenario, with allied forces preparing for a possible invasion, but this time Kim decides to launch a preemptive attack on the U.S. homeland—to take as many people to the grave with him as possible, a goal the North Koreans have declared in the past. In this last war game, North Korea attacks the cities in the second scenario with atomic weapons, but also launches successful nuclear strikes on Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. We were shocked to discover that the combined body count, across Asia and America, came to over three million people—before America’s nuclear counterattack, which would add millions more. After North Korea retaliates with every weapon it has, launching more nuclear attacks along with chemical- and biological-weapons strikes, eight million people have lost their lives.
WHAT IS to be done? There are five potential pathways to mitigating the North Korea challenge. None involve a unilateral military strike; rather, they all embrace the idea that containing Pyongyang is our best and only option.
First, the Trump administration needs to be honest with itself and the problem it faces. There is no room for thinking we have more time to “stop” North Korea from getting nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, a line constantly repeated by experts across the political spectrum. The truth is that Pyongyang already has them.
Second, we need to embrace a financial-containment strategy—limiting the amount of illegal money going into Pyongyang’s atomic and missile programs—as the only way to slow and potentially halt any further advances of North Korea’s missile programs. We should insist that all nine UN Security Council resolutions are not only followed to the letter of international law, but strengthened every time North Korea tests another missile or nuclear weapon.
Third, U.S. and allied joint military capabilities in northeast Asia need to be significantly strengthened, considering the threat they face together. That means allied missile defenses need to be shored up in South Korea and Japan, as well as in the United States.
Fourth, whatever policies Washington pursues, it needs to take into consideration the interests of other great powers—especially China and Russia, two nations that have the power to block or negate any of America’s strategies either at the United Nations or around the globe. The United States must be frank with Moscow and Beijing that its intent is not regime change, but the containment and management of a situation that also impacts their vital national interests. Washington should welcome any realistic diplomatic proposals they could put forward to mitigate the risks of a nuclear North Korea—especially from China, considering the potential influence it wields over North Korea and the prospect of Beijing advancing dialogue with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, the dual-freeze proposal first advanced by China would lock in North Korea’s gains and require unreciprocated sacrifices from Washington and Seoul.
And lastly, while at the moment there is little possibility for direct U.S.-North Korea talks—Pyongyang currently holds three Americans captive, and has little incentive to negotiate before it feels fully confident in its nuclear arsenal—some sort of direct negotiation, even if all that comes of it is the establishment of a communication channel, would be of great help. The United States and Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War enjoyed direct communication through their embassies. Washington and Pyongyang, in the event of a crisis, have no rapid means to communicate their unfiltered intentions.
One way to begin such talks could be a negotiation for the creation of interests sections in both nations, similar to what America and Cuba had during their decades-long estrangement. This would provide a way to communicate directly, but also begin to build some sort of trust between the two sides. While both sides may fail in their quest to extract concessions from one another, something of immense value would be achieved—a potential pathway out of a war that could be started by accident or through misperception. This is an outcome that the Trump administration should embrace, not dismiss.
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North Korea threat: EMP attack can destroy a nation’s entire infrastructure in a flash
KIM Jong-un needs only one hydrogen bomb to bring America to its knees. And he knows it. This is the nation-wide effect it can have in nanoseconds.
DETONATING a thermonuclear warhead 400km above Washington would instantly fry most of the nation’s power grid — and electronics.
The idea is not about melting a city, set enormous fires and irradiate vast tracks of terrain.
It’s about eliminating a nation’s entire infrastructure in a single flash.
There’s little surprise that North Korean state media has been lauding the power of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).
This is where the gamma radiation of a high-altitude nuclear blast interacts with the ionosphere — a blanket of electrons and electrically charged particles surrounding the Earth — to send a series electromagnetic pulses spearing into the ground below.
Once this burst of radiation strikes the ground it can induce strong currents — particularly in electrical cables and phone lines. This can overload and destroy electrical networks, as well as cause delicate circuit boards to fuse.
An entire economy can be brought to a standstill in nanoseconds.
In the words of former director of the CIA James Woolsey, it would bring the United States “to a cold, dark halt”.
It’s an effect similar to that of Earth being struck by a serious solar storm, or — at a much smaller scale — when lightning causes a surge in a power grid.
North Korea’s state news agency commented on just such a tactic at the weekend. It follows a series of similar observations about the power of EMP in July.
The latest statement boasts North Korea’s new bomb “is a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP attack.”
It’s a use clearly on Kim Jong-un’s mind.
But it’s not an attack without human cost.
It would bring “widespread and long lasting disruption and damage to the critical infrastructures that underpin the fabric of US society,” a 2008 US Congress report warns.
The last time anything on this scale happened was in 1859 — when the world was just beginning to discover the use of electrical technologies. The EMP from an enormous solar storm overloaded the simple telegraph wires then in use to transmit morse code, setting the paper telegrams at their terminals on fire.
Things would be infinitely worse today.
“Two thirds of the US population would likely perish from starvation, disease, and societal breakdown,” Woolsey warned US Congress in 2014. “Other experts estimate the likely loss to be closer to 90 per cent.”
Hospitals would be without power. Essential services — electricity, gas, water, sewage, communications — would all be offline. Emergency services would be unable to respond. Food production and distribution networks would collapse.
Computers. Smart phones. Car ignitions. Pacemakers. Any form of delicate electronics within the pulse’s effective range would cease to function.
But the greatest damage would be to the power grid itself. Power stations and network transformers would be burnt out.
And the effect of a high-altitude EMP burst would not be localised.
A 1.4 megaton US hydrogen bomb detonated 500km above the Pacific in 1962 caused lights to flare-out in Honolulu, more than 2000km away. It also knocked-out eight satellites.
A weapon of the magnitude tested by North Korea at the weekend could — if well positioned — burn out the power grid of a large part of the mainland United States.
Repairing the damage would take years.
And delivering such an attack would actually be much easier for Kim Jong-un’s hermit state.
Such a high-altitude thermonuclear attack does not require the technical skills necessary to enable a warhead to survive re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, cope with the heat of enormous speeds — and still hit its specific target.
Perhaps this is why the devastating power of EMP attack has again appeared in North Korean propaganda broadcasts.
“I can exploit it in high-altitude areas for strategic purposes and (inflict) EMP attacks on vast areas,” Kim Jong-un declared back in July.
In 2015, North Korean propaganda boasted it could destroy all electronic devices in South Korea and Japan by detonating a 100 kiloton bomb 100km above Seoul. “If we lower the altitude to 60-70km, we can make the EMP effect only the southern part of the Korean Peninsula,” it declared.
“(EMP) can neutralize all advanced electronic guided weapons and destroy aircraft carrier fleet at once”.
Some have seen this problem coming for a long time and changed their entire way of life by going off-grid. They have found alternative sources such as solar, wind and diesel to power their homes and machinery. A majority of us, who have not gone off-grid, are making a concerted effort to avoid dependence on this ailing infrastructure and preparing for life without it.
The warhead it tested yesterday is estimated to be in the vicinity of 50 to 120 kilotons.
But such an attack would not give Kim Jong-un a victory.
The nuclear arsenals of the United States are hardened against such a pulse. It’s also one of the reasons so much effort and money is invested on near-invisible and widely dispersed ballistic missile submarines.
The instant a North Korean ICBM was detected to be on a trajectory capable of delivering such a high-altitude blow, a retaliatory firestorm of nuclear warheads would almost certainly be unleashed on North Korea itself.
Such is the grim nature of Mutually Assured Destruction — the Cold War philosophy that compelled cool minds to avert the catastrophe that could have resulted from the likes of the 1960s Cuban missile crisis.
What Total Destruction of North Korea Means
As Trump considers military options, he’s drawing unenforceable red lines.
Those four presidents hesitated to bring a forceful end to the North Korean nuclear program, because there is no good policy move for Washington to make. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly emphasized, a war on the Korean peninsula would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” The inescapable constraint on U.S. action is, of course, that the capital of South Korea lies in range of the 8,000 artillery pieces North Korea has aimed at its kin. Even if the United States could pull off a military campaign of exceptional virtuosity—identifying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, targeting dispersing mobile launchers, knocking hundreds of missiles out of the sky before they reach their targets in Korea, Japan, and America, and destroying North Korean conventional forces along the Demilitarized Zone in the first couple of hours of a preventative attack—hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely die. Americans, too, would perish, since more than 130,000 of them reside in South Korea. The more likely course, as Vipan Narang and Ankit Panda have argued, would be North Korea launching on warning—“fail deadly” (as opposed to fail safe) mode. That would drive the numbers much, much higher.
Yet something must be done. To its credit, the Trump administration has lassoed UN Security Council members into agreeing to two more rounds of sanctions. More importantly, it has continued working in close concert with South Korea and Japan, presenting a united front. Both countries are inching toward collective military action rather than away from the United States as the crisis deepens. South Korea responded to the September 14th launch with its own, near-simultaneous missile launch that demonstrated, according to South Korean defense officials, its ability to unilaterally launch a preemptive attack on North Korea. While Asia hands doubt the effectiveness of extended deterrence, South Korea may well request the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons that would establish parity on the peninsula and mitigate its understandable fears of abandonment.
The White House is conflating the possession of nuclear weapons with their use; its policy would be less likely to result in nuclear war or a humiliating climb down by the president if it distinguished between the having and the using. By predicating its policy on preventing acquisition, the administration has dramatically increased the value to North Korea of its nuclear and ICBM programs. A shrewder course would be underscoring that nuclear weapons make no difference, because any conventional or nuclear attack by North Korea on America or its allies would—as has been the case since 1953—result in the end of the Kim regime. That approach diminishes rather than accentuates the political gain to North Korea of becoming a nuclear possessor.
The reckless language out of the White House, both from the president and the national security advisor, is making a situation with little margin for error even more brittle. It’s deeply unsatisfying to choose to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. But it’s a better choice than the alternatives.
“If you are an ordinary person, then you can prepare yourself for war by moving to the countryside and building a farm, but you must take guns with you, as the hordes of starving will be roaming. Also, even though the elite will have their safe havens and specialist shelters, they must be just as careful during the war as the ordinary civilians, because their shelters can still be compromised.”
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