North Korea: We Cannot Afford to Have Another President Lateral the Issue

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) September 13, 2017

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, through both words and actions, again has ratcheted tensions up on the peninsula.

In what one Japanese official last month described as an "unprecedented grave threat," Pyongyang fired-for the first time in eight years-a missile that sailed over the island of Hokkaido.

Undaunted by the international condemnation it generated, Kim announced on September 3rd North Korea detonated a thermonuclear weapon-i.e., a hydrogen bomb-at an underground site. It was that country's sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet.

Full of bravado from the success of the nuclear test, Kim, for the first time, threatened the US with a nuclear, Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. US experts such as former CIA Director James Woolsey and Dr. Peter Pry have warned for years about our susceptibility to just such an attack.

There are two ways EMP is created. One is naturally, via solar storm emissions intersecting with the Earth's orbit and striking at the right time. The other is man-made, via a high-altitude nuclear detonation, which is what Kim has threatened.

There is initial good news but ultimate bad news about an EMP strike. Initially, it would cause minimal loss of human life, while knocking out our electrical grids on the ground and possibly destroying our satellites in space as well. This would leave us powerless and without communications until we could get those systems back up and running. As many of our grid generators currently in use are foreign made, it could take up to two years to replace them. Thus, the bad news is, ultimately, as much as 90 percent of our population could die as everything from food supply to water purification to hospitals and more would be disrupted.

North Korea's most recent actions and threats are most telling as to where Kim perceives he and the US stand at this point in time.

In the 1952 movie western High Noon, the town marshal was left to face a gang of ruthless killers alone. Kim perceives President Donald Trump to be in a very similar situation. Despite concerns by an, until recently, constitutionally-mandated, nearly defenseless Japan and a toothless new administration in South Korea, America has its back against the wall.

Trump should know negotiations with Kim are meaningless and sanctions against North Korea will not end the nuclear crisis.  Both men know military force remains the only viable option and Kim-based on decades of Pyongyang's aggressiveness being tolerated by the US, Seoul and Tokyo without much of a military response-is banking on continuing inaction by the trio.

While Kim's friends in China and Russia-if they ever seriously tried to reel Kim in proved unsuccessful-it should be clear neither nation wields the influence over him that Iran does. The advances in North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs, funded by Iran, have made Kim a legend in his own mind. Surrendering those programs now would cause him to lose tremendous face, not only among his own military leadership but among Tehran's mullahs as well.

It is time for Americans to reflect upon how we allowed ourselves to get where we are today with North Korea-a situation in which our only options today are inaction or military action.

The bottom line is, for decades now, our elected officials have failed us on two national security fronts. First, with both NK and Iran, president after president refused to take constructively effective measures to prevent either country from advancing closer to obtaining nuclear weapons arsenals-even after promising it would never happen, such as President Barack Obama did.

In fact, through international agreements both Tehran and Pyongyang have violated, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security the problem was resolved. We turned a blind eye as one president lateralled the nuclear issue football to the next president to deal with. Sadly, each succeeding president adopted the same policy. But, as in football, one can only lateral so many times before losing so much ground one is left with one's back to the goal line. That is why, concerning our situation with Pyongyang, it is now high noon.

Irresponsibly, as our foreign policy offensive teams continued losing ground, our national security defensive teams failed to pick up the slack. Not only did an evolving EMP missile attack by rogue nations warrant defensive action be taken by our government to harden and protect our grid systems but so too did NASA'swarning we are long overdue for a solar storm-generated EMP. Yet, during these past decades, nothing has been done despite knowing from the earliest days of testing nuclear weapons an EMP threat existed.

Even the following 2011 worrisome assertion by the congressionally-established EMP Commission was insufficient to generate action by our government: "EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences ... It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society." Thus, today, the EMP threat remains very real.

Based on the Iran-North Korea nuclear alliance, it should come as no surprise Tehran's military endorsed an EMP attack against the U.S. before Pyongyang did.

Pyongyang has several means of delivery available to it to conduct an EMP strike. These include a nuclear-armed ICBM, an innocent-looking commercial vessel equipped with a hidden SCUD missile launcher off our coastline or a nuclear-armed orbiting satellite.

We live in a world of multi-faceted nuclear threats. During the Cold War, the nuclear threat environment we faced was more limited and thus somewhat more manageable. But, it is a much different world today. With rogue states like North Korea and Iran edging closer to a first strike nuclear capability and threatening to use it, we need to accept the consequences of using military force sooner rather than later. We simply cannot afford to see another president lateral the ball on this issue.

A version of this piece also appeared on

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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