By John Lewallen
A Deadly Game of Nuclear Chicken
On March 17, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stood in the stark, empty building on the 38th. Parallel that divides North from South Korea and touched off one of the most dramatic and dangerous nuclear threat confrontations in history.
“The U.S. policy of strategic patience is over,” he announced, referring to longstanding U.S. demands that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program. Tillerson conveyed the “red-line” ultimatum that unless North Korea completely gave up their nuclear weapons, they faced the imminent possibility of U.S. military attack.
This touched off a tit-for-tat escalation of colorful threats and military moves, pitting President Trump against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea launched several long-range missiles, some at very high altitudes, in apparent attempt to achieve “second-strike threat credibility”: the perceived ability to attack the U.S. homeland even if North Korea was destroyed by a U.S. nuclear first-strike. The U.S. deployed armadas and practiced invasions. Trump stated that North Korea was “within months” of being able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear missile able to survive the heat of re-entry, implying that the attack on North Korea would come soon unless they complied with U.S. demands to disarm.
Confrontation reached a fever pitch in September, 2017. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump told this august body, which arose from the horrors of World War Two to put an end to aggressive warfare, that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if North Korea did not knuckle under to the ultimatum from the world’s leading nuclear power and surrender their tiny arsenal of nukes.
Kim Jong-un shot back that he would retaliate for this threat at the “highest level,” calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” who would pay dearly for threatening to destroy North Korea.
Trump tweeted : “Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”
Long-time observers of nuclear threat confrontation saw this as a worst-case scenario: a dead-end game of “nuclear chicken,” with two nuclear-armed nations rushing ever closer to the brink of actual nuclear attack like two hot-rodders racing head-on toward each other, with both national leaders appearing insane enough to actually start a nuclear war for no reason at all except ego.
Playing the Nuclear EMP Card
I jumped out of my chair on September 3, 2017, when North Korea announced it had just tested “a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated at high altitudes for a super-powerful EMP (nuclear electromagnetic pulse) attack.”
This announcement, coming on the heels of North Korea’s first underground H-bomb test, took North Korea’s threat credibility against the U.S. to another level. A single H-bomb explosion 200 miles above the central United States could, if powerful enough, emit an electromagnetic pulse which would destroy computer chips in line of sight, destroying computerized electronic civilization continent-wide and in space anywhere in line-of-sight of the blast. This, according to U.S. experts who have been studying, testing and designing nuclear EMP weapons since the 1960s, is a threat to the very existence of the United States.
High-altitude nuclear EMP, sometimes called “HEMP,” was discovered in 1962 when an H-bomb test termed “Starfish Prime” above the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean caused electronics to fail in Hawaii, some 800 miles away. There hasn’t been a high-altitude nuclear test since the 1960s.
The congressional EMP Commission of experts estimate that modern electronics, involving global satellite networks and miniaturized computer chips running virtually everything, are a million times more vulnerable than the vacuum-tube based electronics of the 1960s. So their attention was riveted when North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told New York journalists in September, 2017, that Kim Jong-un was considering launching a high-altitude H-bomb test over the Pacific.
“It could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific,” Ri told reporters. “We have no idea what actions could be taken as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong-un.”
This threat was one of the boldest, and riskiest, gambits in the history of nuclear threat confrontations. There is nowhere over Earth that an exo-atmospheric H-bomb test, anywhere above the atmosphere, would cause no damage to ground, air, and satellite electronics. It might touch off an actual nuclear war.
US Experts React to EMP Coverup
As a lifelong writer and peace activist focused on avoiding nuclear war, I have been studying and striving to increase public awareness about high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) weapons since I found testimony from the 1997 and 1999 EMP hearings held by U.S. Congressional Representative Curt Weldon, posted on the Nuclear Resources website of the Federation of American Scientists www.fas.org. This testimony is still the best detailed, authoritative information about HEMP available to the public, journalists, and academics.
In 2000 I published an edited version of the Weldon Committee testimony, with my commentary (High-Altitude Nuclear War, by John Lewallen (ed.). Since then, the most reliable information on HEMP has been from the reports of the Congressional EMP Commission, established in 2001 by Congress to advise the U.S. government on the EMP threat to military systems and critical civilian infrastructures.
Now it is the urgent responsibility, I believe, of journalists and academics who write about nuclear weapons and nuclear war to study the reality of HEMP and include it in their analysis and commentary. A good place to begin is by printing out a copy of the 14-page EMP Commission report titled “Empty Threat or Serious Danger: Assessing North Korea’s Risk to the Homeland” presented to the House Committee on Homeland Security October 12, 2017.
The EMP Commission clearly was reacting to the de-funding of their Commission by the Department of Defense on September 30, 2017. “In the same month,” the EMP experts noted in the report, “North Korea detonated an H-Bomb that it plausibly describes as capable of “super-powerful EMP” attack and released a technical report “The EMP Might of Nuclear Weapons” accurately describing what Russia and China call a “Super-EMP” weapon.”
The detailed and well-documented EMP Commission Report called for a major U.S. government effort to protect the electric grid and other critical infrastructure from a HEMP attack, which they have said for years could be protected a very low cost. “We recommend that the President direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to launch a crash program to harden the over 100 nuclear power reactors and their spent fuel storage facilities against nuclear EMP attack,” the report stated in bold print. “Nuclear power reactors typically only have enough emergency power to cool reactor cores and spent fuel rods for a few days, after which they would ‘go Fukushima’ spreading radioactivity over much of the United States.”
The report concluded that a HEMP attack definitely threatens the very existence of the United States, unless relatively inexpensive protective measures are taken.
After decades of being ignored by U.S. policy makers, the EMP Commission found a sympathetic and responsive official: President Trump. In December, 2017, President Trump called for protection of the U.S. electric and communications grid against a HEMP attack such as the one threatened by North Korea.
Trump Chooses the Path of Peace Negotiations with North Korea
At the beginning of 2018, President Trump found himself between a rock and a hard place in his game of “nuclear chicken” with Kim Jong-un. North Korea, instead of giving up their nuclear weapons, confronted Trump with the very real risk they would test a damaging HEMP bomb over the Pacific, almost forcing a U.S. military response risking the survival of the U.S. itself. Admitting his “red-line” demand that North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons could not be enforced by the U.S. would greatly damage Trump’s threat credibility. In short, he risked losing face or losing everything.
He found a third way out in the brilliant peace negotiations with North Korea led by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Early in March, 2018, South Korean official Chung Eui-yong conveyed a proposal from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for a person-to-person “summit” with Trump. Apparently to the surprise of his aides, Trump accepted the invitation, even asking the South Koreans to announce the upcoming meeting immediately.
Later Trump tweeted that Kim “talked about denuclearization with the South Korean representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned.”
I, for one, slept a lot easier that night, hoping the game of “nuclear chicken” was over for good.
Trump Falls in Love With Kim Jong-un
Now it’s November, 2018. The June 12, 2018 “summit” was a real love-fest, with both Trump and Kim clearly delighted to sign an executive declaration that, because Americans and North Koreans have a mutual commitment to “peace and prosperity,” negotiations without preconditions would begin, moving toward the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Trump added that he would suspend the “war games” staging mock invasions of North Korea which have been regularly held by U.S. and South Korean forces, stating the obvious, but previously never admitted by a U.S. President: the war games are “provocative.”
Since then, Trump has engaged in a warm correspondence with Kim. Recently Trump declared his “love” for Kim. Another face-to-face meeting is in the offing.
Currently negotiations are stalled, with the U.S. demanding more progress toward de-nuclearization, and the North Koreans demanding that the U.S. President must declare an end to the Korean War before they will talk about specific steps to de-nuclearize. Meanwhile, North and South Korea have moved forward to end hostilities and work toward re-unification of their country. No party seems to want to end negotiations and risk returning to the dead-end game of “nuclear chicken.”
The Korean War is very much still going on for the North Koreans, who have been struggling under economic sanctions since the 1950s, causing tremendous economic privation. The sanctions, far from driving them to the negotiating table, probably are a major reason why their tiny nation of 25 million people has a standing army almost as large as the United States (1.19 million versus 1.36 million troops), and a military bristling with artillery, loaded with chemical and biological warfare agents, and proficient in cyber warfare, all focused on deterring an attack from the United States.
It doesn’t make sense for North Korea to negotiate away their nuclear deterrent while they are at war with the world’s largest nuclear power.
I’m recommending that President Trump should join Kim Jong-un in declaring an end to the Korean War, and make an explicit goal of ongoing talks to negotiate an actual peace treaty ending the Korean War, now by far the longest war in U.S. history. The Cold War logic of stopping monolithic communism is no longer relevant. Now, North Korea has no conflict of interest with the United States.
Actually, North Korea is a natural geopolitical ally of the United States, perfectly positioned to counter the growing power of China. The best way, and possibly the only way, to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear deterrent force is by making it an ally of the United States, including North Korea under the protective “umbrella” of the U.S.
Did North Korea’s very credible threat of testing a HEMP nuclear weapon capable of destroying the United States play any role in causing Trump to begin peace talks and acknowledge North Korea as a legitimate nation? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Meanwhile, I’m asking everyone to contemplate the fact that several nations, including China, Russia, and North Korea, could have satellites in orbit now prepared to wipe out U.S. computerized civilization. The EMP Commission recommends all kinds of missile defense weapons and military moves to try to stop or shoot down HEMP weapons. Actually, I believe there is no military defense against HEMP in a world where over a thousand satellites circle above, including two North Korean satellites which might contain HEMP bombs. Trump chose the only effective way to avoid HEMP attack against the U.S.: peace talks.
On September 20, 2017, a few days before the termination of the EMP Commission, General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told a military conference the raw truth about the EMP weapon just tested by North Korea: “It’s a dangerous threat and a very realistic threat,” General Hyten said. “If you set off an EMP, a high altitude EMP, basically every light in this hotel is going to go off; and every car in the parking lot will no longer work. That’s what an EMP does…We have to be able to respond. But our nation has not looked at EMP.”
Trump has chosen the only sane path forward for the human race: an end to military confrontation with North Korea, the beginning of talks leading to peace and prosperity. Let’s do the same with Russia, China, and Iran. It’s time to face the fact that in a world where the first blow in strategic nuclear war could wipe out computerized civilization, all the nuclear weapons described in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review are not just obsolete; they would be laughably obsolete if they weren’t a trillion-dollar setup of the very possible “accidental” destruction of the human race.Φ
John Lewallen, 75, is a freelance writer and independent nuclear strategist focused on avoiding nuclear war. Some of his published books are:Ecology of Devastation: Indochina(Penguin Books, nominated for the 1972 Pulitzer Prize by Penguin); High-Altitude Nuclear War(2001), edited testimony from the 1997 and 1999 Weldon Committee hearings on EMP; and Land of Frozen Laughter(2015), a report on his two years as a community development volunteer in South Vietnam, 1967-69. He follows today’s nuclear threat war and peace efforts at his website <avoidingnuclearwar.com>. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This emailed article was sent November 10.