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Media pundits have long expressed befuddlement over North Korea’s relentless quest for a nuclear arsenal. Often the Kims are portrayed as deranged and paranoid. I argue they are shrewd survivors and astute students of history. In the last 20 years, America got pissed-off at Afghanistan (for good reason) invaded and overthrew the dictator. Then we got pissed at Iraq, invaded and killed the dictator. In 2003 Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program and sought better relations with the USA. But a few years later he also pissed us off, so we attacked Libya, overthrew the government and he also wound up dead.  We are currently super pissed-off at N. Korea. If Kim Jong Un is a bit paranoid, it is not without reason.

Nothing helps ease anxiety more than a good insurance policy, and life insurance is what nukes represent to the Kim family.  As the saying goes “it’s not paranoia if somebody is really out to get you”. At the U.N., Donald Trump called   Kim the “Rocket Man on a suicide mission for himself”. He went on to say “We will have no choice but to destroy North Korea.”  Trump seems to believe that whipping-up Kim’s anxiety is a good idea.  I think it is pointless and potentially dangerous.

Neither the UN’s announced economic sanctions nor Trump’s bluster will force the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons program. The paradoxical effect will be to strengthen their resolve and drive Kim into the waiting arms of the Iranians. North Korea has nukes and desperately needs money.  Thanks to Obama’s easing of sanctions, Iran now has boatloads of money and desperately wants nukes.

I am involved in an initiative called the Lake Wylie Project, an effort in my region of the Carolinas to harden the local electrical grid. When I give talks about what we are doing, I start by asking the audience how long they think it will be until the N. Koreans are capable of putting a satellite in orbit; most guesses are in the range of 5 or 10 years. When I inform them that Korean satellite KMS-3 has been passing over the USA daily since 2012 and larger KMS-4 since 2016 most people are surprised. What they have heard on TV and read in the papers is that Kim’s rockets cannot reach the US.

For years, America’s news organizations have underreported, downplayed and misrepresented North Korea’s technological sophistication.  Only recently has concern been expressed that the rogue state might become a direct threat to us. This realization has been late in coming since it is likely they already possess the means to cause mass casualties in the heart of the United States. What we need to fear most is their EMP (electromagnetic pulse) capability.  We know they have these weapons. They also have the means of delivery. These specially-designed nuclear bombs are most effective when detonated at high altitude, around 300 miles up. Not coincidentally, this is the altitude at which their satellites orbit. 

We learned from the Russians that sophisticated EMP plans were leaked to the Kim regime many years ago. American nuclear weapons experts suspected that early Korean nuclear tests represented low blast, high radiation EMP weapons. Our media reported them as “duds”.  EMP damage is not caused by the blast, but by the tremendous magnetic flux created, which in turn induces huge voltage surges capable of destroying transformers, control systems and other devices connected to the grid.

In other words, the power goes out and doesn’t come back on. No electricity means no water, no toilets, no food and no civilian communications. Despite the threat, President Trump is actively escalating tensions, even though his advisors know this is pointless and dangerous. Steve Bannon was spot-on when he said of the crisis “there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

Two prior government officials who have spoken up are former CIA director James Woolsey and EMP Commissioner Vincent Pry. Their editorial – click here –  in a number of publications  warned: “According to the Congressional EMP Commission, a single warhead delivered by North Korean satellite could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.”

We have known about nuclear EMP since the 1960s when a great deal of testing and engineering took place. We developed EMP weapons and so did the Russians.  Our military has been shielding its electronics ever since.  But, because the Russians also had thousands of ICBMs, there seemed to be no reason to try to protect the electrical grid supplying cities that would be smoking ruins anyway.  Now the threat has changed.  When the North Koreas only had the capacity to build a few nukes, they knew they could do the greatest damage with EMP bombs, which do not require precise targeting and are far easier to build than thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs.

When negotiations to ease sanctions against Iran were taking place, the media was silent about the presence of Iranian observers at N. Korean missile launches and nuclear tests. Likewise, little was written when Iran launched its first satellite into orbit in 2008. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Iran may already have a limited nuclear weapons capability, purchased from Kim.

Congress has authorized two EMP Commissions staffed with scientists, engineers, and nuclear weapon experts. Both have submitted reports that conclude these weapons present a grave threat and could potentially destroy the United States as we know it. In response, Congress has done what it always does when faced with a complex and unpleasant problem- order another study and kick the can down the road. Some experts have concluded we must act locally because Washington never will. This is the rationale for our pilot project in the Carolinas.

Ambassador Henry Cooper, former head of the Strategic Defense Initiative, has been spearheading the effort he describes as a “bottoms up” approach to protect the electric grid. He has enlisted other retired Department of Defense experts and is working with Duke Energy, which has committed resources to harden its infrastructure against EMP.  Additional funding has been obtained from a private foundation grant.

Our region was selected for the pilot project because Lake Wylie has a hydroelectric plant in close proximity to a nuclear facility. For technical reasons, this makes protecting the plants easier. It also aids in restarting generation if the facilitates have to shut down. Locally, as in most of the nation, we have a patchwork of electric utilities including private companies, public systems, and regional cooperatives.   Bringing them all together is one focus of our project. Once we have solved the technical and logistical problems here, we hope our model will be copied by the several thousand electric utilities and Co-ops scattered around the country.

The 2004 EMP Commission report concludes “EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences”.  “Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential protagonists who are not as dependent on modern electronics. The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected. Correction is feasible and well within the Nation’s means and resources to accomplish.”  13 years later, Congress has done nothing to address this threat. That is why we are acting locally.