North Korea, the country whose nuclear ambitions have been the fulcrum of global security concerns for more than a decade, may be a threat in more ways than one.
Concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal have largely revolved around whether the country could eventually launch a warhead at neighboring South Korea, or even the United States itself. Yet the country's recent actions have converged with percolating fears about the U.S.'s antiquated power grid—which a growing number of observers say is vulnerable to asymmetric threats.
The possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack—defined as the detonation of a nuclear device at high altitude that produces an electromagnetic wave that can either damage or destroy electronic systems—has been mooted since at least the Cold War, the Center for Security Policy notes, while solar flares can also trigger the same effect.
Yet its the threat of a malicious attack on the more than 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines that comprise the U.S. power lattice that has some experts worried. It has been a generic concern in national security circles for years. However, North Korea's suspected test of a hydrogen bomb in late January—combined with its firing of a rocket just days ago—has fanned new EMP fears among observers who have warned about the issue for some time.
"The technology of building a super EMP weapon is understood and at least by circumstantial evidence…the North Koreans know how to do it," said Henry (Hank) Cooper, a director at the think tank Foundation for Resilient Societies and a former arms control official under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.