Pinchas Landau

Things that go HEMP in the night

The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, at an undisclosed location in North Korea, November 29, 2017. (Image provided by the North Korean government, Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, at an undisclosed location in North Korea, November 29, 2017. (Image provided by the North Korean government, Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

The North Korean crisis is not a Punch and Judy show, although Kim and Trump make it seem that way. It is a deadly serious power struggle with huge stakes and the latest missile launch on Wednesday night (November 29) brings the climax much closer.

* * *

Another North Korean missile launch, in the early hours (Korean time) of Wednesday, November 29, caused a flutter in the news cycle and on the world’s financial markets, but that’s about it.

Most people, whose attention spans have long since been attenuated to minutes and their memories to days by the relentless dumbing-down inflicted by media in general and social media in particular, have long since lost interest in the slow-burning North Korean crisis.

Among the minority who are still following, with greater or lesser degrees of concern, the widespread antipathy toward Donald Trump has, in many cases, clouded their vision and analytical capability —  especially with regard to North Korea, probably the foreign affairs issue in which Trump has become most directly and consistently engaged.

Indeed, many people in the West, if asked to choose sides between the “old lunatic” — Kim Jong-Un’s description of Trump — and the “short, fat man” — Trump’s tweeted riposte, would be tempted to select “none of the above”. But to dismiss the rival leaders as the “old lunatic” and the “young lunatic” respectively, is not only wrong but dangerous and delusional.

First, neither of them is a lunatic. They each have numerous negative qualities, but they are both entirely sane and they both know what they are doing and why.

Kim Jong-Un is focused on securing his regime (and person) and perpetuating, against all odds, for many more generations. Achieving nuclear weapons and the capability of delivering them is his means to that end, because he believes that having that capability will ensure him against any possible American effort to oust him. He also believes, rightly or wrongly, that China will not abandon him — out of concern for China’s own interests.

His completion of the Kim dynasty’s multi-generational effort to achieve nuclear weapons and the ability to launch them, is a remarkable achievement by any standards. It also reflects extraordinary incompetence and serial diplomatic failures on the part of a series of (very different) American presidents and their administrations.

However, that’s all water under the bridge. As of Wednesday night, it is now indisputable that North Korea has rockets that can hit anywhere in the US, indeed anywhere in the world. How large a payload the rockets can carry is of secondary importance — unless you are in or near the targeted area, in which case the size of the bomb being dropped is a rather critical consideration.

But the reason that Wednesday’s rocket launch is so important is not because North Korea intends to drop a nuclear bomb on New York, Los Angeles or Washington. It is rather because North Korea almost certainly does NOT intend to nuke a major American city.

Instead, the North Korean goal — so the American military and intelligence community is now convinced — is to be able to destroy the whole of the United States in one fell swoop. Sounds insane, huh? Like the lunatic pronouncements of the “short, fat” tyrant from Pyongyang?

Well, it isn’t. The name of the game is HEMP, but let’s start with EMP. That acronym, blissfully unknown to almost everyone, is “electromagnetic pulse”. What the hell is that? Let’s consult the fount of all modern knowledge — Wikipedia:

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP), also sometimes called a transient electromagnetic disturbance, is a short burst of electromagnetic radiation. Such a pulse’s origination may be a natural occurrence or man-made…  EMP interference is generally disruptive or damaging to electronic equipment, and at higher energy levels a powerful EMP event such as a lightning strike can damage physical objects such as buildings and aircraft structures.

Now let’s skip to the nasty stuff:

Weapons have been developed to create the damaging effects of high-energy EMP. Misleading or incorrect information about such weapons, both real and fictional, have become known to the public by means of popular culture and some politicians’ claims. Misleading information includes both exaggeration of EMP effects and downplaying the significance of the EMP threat.

Those last sentences sound more reassuring, but then there’s this:

A high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) is a N(uclear)EMP warhead designed to be detonated far above the Earth’s surface. The explosion releases a blast of gamma rays into the mid-stratosphere, which ionizes and the resultant energetic free electrons interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to produce a much stronger EMP than is normally produced in the denser air at lower altitudes.

Thus, if you could explode a nuclear bomb of sufficient power at exactly the right altitude and in exactly the right geographical location, you could wreak enormous damage not only to the electricity grid, but also to every electronic device located over a very wide area. Since everything, but everything, now has chips in it (think cars), that means you could effectively paralyse all activity.

I would like to believe that this is what Wikipedia means by “misleading or incorrect information”. However, I have been disabused of that hope by people who do know what they are talking about.

The key facts are these: there is nothing new about HEMP — the Soviets were working towards it more than 50 years ago. But to be able to do it right and on a continent-wide scale, as would be necessary in an attack on the US, is exceedingly difficult. The Russians are believed to be assisting the North Koreans in this, as they are in other areas, as part of their general strategy of annoying the Americans.

But HEMP is not “annoying”; it is in the category of existential threats. The US cannot wait until the North Koreans reach the stage of fine-tuning their strike capabilities. Statements by leading American policy-makers and military people make it clear that they will not allow the North Koreans to approach that point.

Of course, no one any longer believes anything American politicians say, least of all Trump. That’s probably why he had to go to Beijing to tell Xi Jinping personally that if China did not use its presumed capability to eliminate Kim Jong-Un (and his family, although probably not the entire regime) then there would be no alternative but to nuke all the North Korean bases, whatever the consequences to South Korea — and to China, as the wind blew the radioactive dust across its border.

That is where it’s at — or so I am told, and so I believe. The proof will be when we hear that an army coup in North Korea has sent Kim to meet his murdered half-brother, uncle and numerous other victims, and installed a new leadership that will make a deal with the US, under Chinese mediation. Or that the Americans, who currently have three of their six active fleets sailing near the Korean peninsula, have attacked.

About the Author
Pinchas Landau is an economic and financial analyst, serving as a consultant to major financial institutions in Israel and abroad on domestic and global developments.
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