Now that the rapprochement between the United States and North Korea appears to be on hold, the North Korean military threat will have to become a focus of the Trump Administration yet again. At the moment, the world fixates on North Korea’s nuclear threat. Few, however, talk about North Korea’s space program.
Keep in mind that a country which possesses a nuclear weapons capability also has the capacity to build a space program. Pyongyang has already conducted a series of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches that have stoked fears in the West about North Korea’s growing capability. Of course, North Korea claimed that these were launches of civilian weather satellites . Yet, the satellite followed an odd orbit and did not appear to display any of the regular behaviors that innocuous weather satellites are expected to exhibit.
The satellite, dubbed KMS 3-2, with a NORAD tracking identification number of 39026, was launched on 12 December 2012. Many Westerners believed the launch of KMS 3-2 was a “veiled ballistic missile test.” It likely was. Those same analysts also assumed the “satellite” was just junk. Although, the fact that KMS 3-2 has remained in orbit for as long as it has, following an odd north-south orbital trajectory, indicates to some that the system just might be an unconventional weapon known as an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) bomb. To buttress these concerns, it is important to note that KMS 3-2 sits at an altitude of 280 miles above Earth, an optimal position for an “E-bomb.”
More troubling, on February 7, 2017, North Korea placed another “weather” satellite, KMS-4 (NORAD tracking number 41332), in a north-south orbit. This occurred not long after Pyongyang successfully had tested a hydrogen bomb. The concern is that, like a Bond villain from the Roger Moore-era, Kim Jong-un is placing powerful electromagnetic pulse weapons in Earth’s orbit that he will one day use either to hold the West hostage or to attack us.
An EMP is a devastating blast of energy that destroys most electronics. First observed by scientists as far back 1859, it was not seen as a potential weapon until the infamous U.S. military Starfish Prime nuclear weapons test in 1962.
At that time, America detonated a massive nuclear warhead 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. The test damaged Hawaii’s electrical grid and telephones. That same year, the Soviet Union conducted a similar test in Kazakhstan, which started power plant fires in Karaganda. Since then, many more nuclear weapons states have arisen. And, as two Russian generals warned American leaders in 2004, Moscow sold Russia’s “super-EMP warhead design” to North Korea.
Lights Out, Mass Casualties
There’s also further reason for concern. By placing their satellites in a north-south orbit, as opposed to the usual east-west orbital path, North Korea has complicated the ability for American radar and ballistic missile defenses both to track and to destroy such weapons. After all, the American radar network was designed to detect incoming nuclear weapons launched from the former Soviet Union. Such launches would have followed an east-west direction. Washington possesses limited capabilities to track and shoot down an attack from a north-south orbit.
Speaking to a group of tech executives in Silicon Valley in 2017, I cautioned that Pyongyang might have placed a dormant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon in orbit of Earth. Such a move would be in keeping with both North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. It would also coincide with Pyongyang’s commitment to developing asymmetrical forms of warfare meant to negate America’s overwhelming military supremacy.
In 2008, a special commission released a report on the threat of an EMP attack to the United States. The commission, formed shortly after 9/11, outlined a broad scope of vulnerabilities. Yet little has been done to better defend the United States. For example, the EMP Commission assessed that such a weapon detonated in orbit above the continental United States would knock out all power and advanced technology, effectively sending the United States back into the 19th century. The commission also determined that for a rogue state like North Korea, developing such a capability could be strategically useful to Pyongyang. Further, upwards of 90 percent of the American population could be killed off in the course of two years following a large-scale EMP attack due in part to massive disruptions in food production and distribution. Two years is the minimum amount of time it would take to restore America’s destroyed electrical grid and replace critical technology.
Of course, many national security analysts question whether North Korea has the capability to place such a system in orbit. In 2016, Peter W. Singer of New America said that these fears are “a joke” among “serious” national security practitioners. Physicist and State Department foreign affairs officer during the Obama Administration, Yousaf M. Butt, believed that the North Koreans lacked the sophistication to place a weapon large enough in orbit that could knock out the North American power grid.
But, many of these same “experts” would have laughed at anyone who, until September 12, 2001, claimed that al Qaeda would launch the most devastating surprise attack on the United States in its history—using only box cutters and fake explosives. Never doubt a desperate and dedicated foe, such as North Korea.
No Viable Defense
Meanwhile, in 2017, the North Koreans successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon—the kind of weapon that’d be needed to effectively send America back into the pre-electrical age. Plus, Pyongyang has possessed miniaturization technology for years, meaning that they could have conceivably created such a weapon and placed it in orbit.
Then again, the North Koreans would not even need to place a potent thermonuclear device in orbit to do damage to the United States. A smaller-yield nuclear device detonated in orbit could send an EMP burst that would destroy America’s critical satellite constellations, rendering American forces around the world deaf, dumb, and blind—and possibly sowing chaos here at home.
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the national security establishment has tried to anticipate the next unconventional attack. Should President Trump be unable to revive the diplomacy with Kim, any conflict with North Korea could begin with a North Korean surprise EMP attack from space. America currently has no viable defense against such an attack. The Trump Administration must not only ensure that a space force is created to better defend the United States from a space-borne attack, but that a real space-based missile defense program is undertaken before it is too late . . . if it’s not too late already.
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Photo Credit: Getty Images/NASA