North Korean Nuclear Missile Game-Changer

by JOHN C. WOHLSTETTER June 6, 2013

As basketball star turned amateur diplomat Dennis Rodman planned a summer vacation with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, North Korea's direct threat to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at America's west coast induced President Obama to order a supplemental deployment of 14 more U.S. Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missiles by 2017, for a total GBI deployment of 44. The move conflicts with Obama's previous efforts to halt GBI deployment, but remains dangerously inadequate to counter grave, plausible emerging threats.

The state of Pyongyang's nuclear program is not solidly known. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, an international agency that monitors nuclear tests, reports that it is unable to determine whether North Korea's February nuclear test was fueled by uranium or plutonium. Unless trace elements are detected within a few days of a nuclear test, or via one or more "moles" (spies) inside the North's top echelon, our intelligence agencies cannot reliably ascertain the fuel. Thus we cannot reliably gauge the state of Pyongyang's nuclear progress.

North Korea's few existing atomic bombs are not thought small enough to fit inside its current warheads. This is why its February 2013 test might have been of a small-warhead uranium bomb design, one compact enough to fit inside its warheads and light enough to be carried aloft by its extant ballistic missiles. Also, for technical reasons uranium fuel is far easier to detonate at full yield than is plutonium fuel.

The U.S. intelligence community presented to Congress its latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, on March 12:

Because of deficiencies in their conventional military forces, North Korean leaders are focused on deterrence and defense. The Intelligence Community has long assessed that, in Pyongyang's view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy. We do not know Pyongyang's nuclear doctrine or employment concepts. Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against US forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North's perspective, crossing that threshold.

Ere we break out the champagne, we had better think through the emerging ballistic-missile threat spectrum. The North closely cooperates with Iran on nuclear and ballistic missile technology, with both countries sharing the fruits of nuclear and ballistic-missile know-how imported from Russia, China and Pakistan. This could accelerate not only North Korea's nuclear threat, but pull Iran across the nuclear-club finish line. Third, the Syrian reactor destroyed in 2007 by Israeli jets was a clone of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor, clearly supplied by Pyongyang. The facility would have been capable of clandestinely producing nuclear fuel for Pyongyang's program. But there may well be worse, much worse, to come.

In a recent article, former CIA director R. James Woolsey and co-author Peter Fry, who was staff director of a congressional panel that issued reports in 2004 and 2008, warned that North Korea could launch a crippling "EMP" strike. "EMP" refers to a series of powerful electromagnetic pulses generated by a nuclear explosion. Detonated at high altitude such pulses could, in a worst-case scenario, bring down America's electric grid, which supports myriad vital infrastructures in the 48 contiguous states. Such a nuclear weapon can be designed to maximize emission of lethal gamma-ray energy while reducing blast energy. This can be done using the so-called "neutron bomb" more properly known as an ER/RB-"enhanced radiation, reduced blast"-warhead that ex-president Carter unilaterally abandoned in 1978. The ER/RB was designed in 1958, to emit lethal neutron radiation energy to disable soldiers -well before a 1962 nuclear test revealed the long range of high-altitude EMP. Intense gamma rays emitted by an ER/RB make it a "super-EMP" weapon.

America's existing missile defense system is so limited in capability that it, though operational since 2007, is far from guaranteed to successfully intercept an ICBM. These travel at around four miles per second, and thus are vastly harder to intercept than the primitive rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Unlike the descending satellite incinerated by a 2008 missile launched from a Navy missile frigate in the Pacific, a hostile ICBM can carry lightweight decoys, hard to distinguish from genuine warheads while traversing space. In weightless space there is no atmospheric drag to separate decoys from heavier warheads. Further, China's massive cyber-hijacking of classified data on key U.S. weapon systems includes data on the three missile systems which currently defend against ballistic missile-strikes from East Asia.

And because space offers no atmospheric drag, the heavy re-entry heat shield ICBMs must normally carry to withstand several thousand degrees of heat upon re-entry can be discarded for an EMP weapon. An EMP-armed missile needs only the far lighter "fairing" shield to protect the payload during lift-off and early ascent, when far less heat is generated due to the missile not reaching extreme velocity until arcing through space. This leaves much more weight for weapon payload.

Testifying on May 21 before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Woolsey added another, frightening dimension arising out of Pyongyang's successful December 12, 2012 ballistic missile test: the ability to bypass all existing U.S. land-based missile defense systems, which point westward. The North has been given technology assistance by Russia, via Iran, concerning what the former Soviet Union developed in the 1960s, the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS).

FOBS could launch a weapon from North Korea into a satellite orbit passing over the south polar region, suddenly descending into the U.S. on a track outside the cone of coverage of our current land-based missile defense radars. Our radars were deployed to deflect an ICBM attack passing over the north polar region.

The North's December 12 test looks like a game-changer. Woolsey told the House committee that the test of the North's "Space Launch Vehicle" showed an ability to put a 100-kilogram (240-pound) payload into polar orbit 500 kilometers (312 miles) high. Such a test is a proxy for an ICBM, as achieving Earth orbit requires a five mile-per-second velocity, faster than the sub-orbital velocity needed for a traditional ICBM. A super-EMP neutron weapon, another Soviet-era design, can be assembled with a warhead lighter than 50 kilograms-less than 110 pounds.

An EMP warhead launched from the Gulf of Mexico, detonated at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles) could shut down America's vital electric grids. A more modest EMP strike launched from a ship in the Atlantic, could easily detonate a super-EMP warhead at a 30-kilometer altitude (19 miles). This is high enough to cover an area of 600 kilometers (375 miles), and could take down the eastern portion of America's electric grid, which alone provides 70 percent of America's electric power supply. Woolsey adds that the accuracy required for EMP targeting is minimal; a few tens of kilometers from a designated aim point above ground zero is close enough. Iran's 1,200-mile range Shahab-3 missile suffices.  Woolsey further notes that all three North Korean atomic bomb tests have been low-yield. Instead of interpreting the tests as dud city-busters, they could have been tests of an EMP weapon, where blast yield is irrelevant to the designer's EMP emission objective.

Democracies have historically been slow learners on how to deal with dictators. Modern democracies have a well-founded loathing for war that induces them to pursue every diplomatic avenue, no matter how many failures in prior efforts. Thus every American administration going back 30 years has sought to bargain with Pyongyang. For its part, the North has been perfectly consistent: it has ignored every commitment it ostensibly made, as soon as it deemed it expedient to do so.

Thus the 1994 Agreed Framework, the adoption of which was made inevitable by former President Jimmy Carter's 1994 visit to Pyongyang, against the wishes of the Clinton administration. The bargain North Korea made, in shorthand, was to limit its nuclear ambition to commercial nuclear power, in return for a pair of light-water nuclear reactors, plus economic and food aid, from the United States. The Clinton administration considered a strike on the North's reactors, but was deterred by the lethal threat 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces pose to South Korea's densely populated capital, Seoul. Were those guns fired en masse they would dump several hundred thousand artillery shells on Seoul within a single hour, inflicting massive casualties upon the civilian population.

Thus it came to pass that in October 2002 Pyongyang claimed it had a nuclear weapon; but our intelligence could not confirm this until the North's October 2006 nuclear test. Yet three months later the Bush administration sent negotiators back to Pyongyang, to show our good faith-as if after the North's abrogating its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty and subsequent clandestine nuclear test it was America that had to prove its bona fides.

In 2010 came two more jolts, after years of fruitless diplomacy aimed at bribing the North to give up its nukes, efforts of ours that had no plausible chance to succeed. The North sunk a South Korean ship, killing 46, and also abrogated the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

Congress should insist upon expanding missile defense programs, and oppose any effort to bargain them away. Already, President Obama has delivered on his infamous promise to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would show "flexibility" following the 2012 election: he has scaled back the U.S. missile defense technology promised Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania.  Poland responded by authorizing multi-year indigenous missile-defense funding of up to five percent of each year's defense budget; this is the equivalent of the U.S. spending about $25 billion annually out of its $525 billion defense budget. The U.S. plans to spend about one-third of that amount in FY2013. Japan has spent $12 billion on multi-layer missile defense since North Korea fired a missile over Japan in 1998.

Secretary of State John Kerry's offer to trade missile defense for a nuclear deal with Pyongyang, which has never honored a bargain, is simply the administration's latest exercise in wishful thinking. This policy shift ignores the potential cost of even one nuclear warhead detonated above a U.S. city. Its human and financial cost would dwarf that of the September 11, 2001, attacks, easily killing a few hundred thousand, and intuitively would likely inflict a multi-trillion-dollar loss, its impact surely spreading to global financial markets.  Such an horrific toll would be dwarfed by the destruction caused by a successful major EMP strike.

The threat posed by North Korea's ballistic missile program should not be a partisan issue. In 2006 Clinton secretary of defense William J. Perry and Ashton Carter, now President Obama's deputy secretary of defense, advocated a U.S. pre-emptive strike targeting North Korea's ICBM launch facilities. The authors stated that the North could be deterred from attacking South Korea by a credible threat that in such event the Pyongyang regime would be destroyed. An administration that launched such a pre-emptive strike would instantly gain credibility as to such a regime-end threat.

It is easy to laugh at ex-jock and celebrity dunce Dennis Rodman calling nauseating despot Kim Jong-un "awesome." But the utterly feckless diplomacy of successive U.S. administrations is neither excusable nor funny. Nor is the North's March 29 "state of war" declaration amusing. Perhaps eventually we will learn to confine diplomacy with rogue states to leveraging the sole currency they respect: force or the credible threat of it. Meanwhile we had better rapidly upgrade our missile defenses and harden key components of our electric grid against EMP effects.

Mr. Wohlstetter is the author of "Sleepwalking With the Bomb" (Discovery Institute Press, 2012). Follow John on twitter at @JohnWohlstetter 


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