North Korea Reportedly Making Progress on Newt Gingrich’s Nightmare Weapon

Newt Gingrich

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME

Now that it’s successfully pirated Angry Birds for its offline tablets, North Korea can focus the full attention of its carefully cultivated cyber command on a different mission: developing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons capable of neutralizing an enemy’s electronics. The nation is apparently working to replicate EMP technology purchased from Russia, according to a report from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

EMPs can be created by exploding nuclear bombs above the atmosphere so that as the gamma rays released in the explosion travel to Earth, they combine with electrons and form powerful magnetic waves that overload and short-circuit any conducting surfaces they encounter, including wires, power lines, and electronic equipment. What’s more, an EMP attack is easier to implement than a traditional nuclear warhead—the technology is less sophisticated, it requires less accuracy, and it can even be deployed from a barge on the ocean. Furthermore, nations that have not yet developed long-range missile technology capable of carrying the weight of a traditional nuclear weapon may still be able to use EMP weapons, which detonate very high up in the atmosphere and therefore do not need heavy re-entry vehicles or heat shields.

The threat has attracted some serious attention in the United States, where politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., have been vocal about their fears that these weapons could knock out the nation’s power grid, telecommunications infrastructure, and transportations systems with a single strike.

The proponents of EMP-preparedness have a tendency to frame the issue in apocalyptic terms. “This could be the kind of catastrophe that ends civilization—and that’s not an exaggeration,” Gingrich said in a speech in June, adding, “You can recover from 9/11, you can recover from Pearl Harbor. This is really different.”

Gingrich, you may not be surprised to know, is exaggerating here. It’s even an exaggeration to say that it would be more damaging and dangerous than North Korea launching a traditional nuclear weapon. However, it is probably fair to say that an EMP attack is one of the easiest and cheapest ways for North Korea to wreak widespread havoc on the United States and that both our technical and diplomatic defenses may be helpless to prevent it. And, unfortunately, there aren’t obvious other feasible, cost-effective defensive options.

But the world-ending tenor of this issue has resonated with enough people Washington, D.C., that there’s even a Congressional EMP Caucus. This summer, Franks introduced the Secure High-Voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act, a bill aimed at protecting the power grid from the threat of EMP.

As comforting as a SHIELD sounds, though, there are relatively few options for defending against an EMP. The EMP Commission, a body established by Congress in 2001 as part of that year’s National Defense Authorization Act, in its 2004 report, notes, “It will not be possible to reduce the incentives for an EMP attack to an acceptable level of risk through defensive protection measures alone.” Rather, the report recommends a combination of intelligence gathering, diplomatic efforts, recovery and disaster relief planning, and further research.

In terms of technical solutions, former CIA director R. James Woolsey has advocated for greater use of Faraday cages—essentially metal boxes (or rooms) that can shield their contents from electric fields. It may make sense to implement Faraday cages and military-grade EMP protection standards for some portion of the nation’s critical infrastructure—and these types of measures are routinely used to protect equipment from lightning—but it’s hard to imagine a world in which all, or even most, of our electronics are kept enclosed in metal cages.

The uselessness of trying to defend against EMP attacks has discouraged the U.S. military from even trying to prepare for them, according to EMP commissioner William Graham, who testified before the House Committee on Armed Services in 2004 that “there is a tendency in the U.S. military not to introduce nuclear weapons in general and EMP in particular into exercise scenarios or game scenarios because it tends to end the game, and that is not a good sign.” Even in recent years, as the United States has focused more attention on preparing for cyberattacks and protecting the electric grid, EMP has been noticeably absent from several high-profile simulations, including the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Storm exercises, as well as the 2011 North American Electric Reliability Corp. Grid Security Exercise (GridEx I), which featured a fictional scenario involving malicious actors who introduced malware to substations via infected USB drives. GridEx II will be held next week.

In the absence of effective technical defenses for EMP attacks or a reliable missile-defense system, protection efforts largely come down to planning and relief measures that echo preparations for natural disasters. For instance, a 2008 report from the EMP Commission recommends such steps as stockpiling food and water. The other potentially relevant form of defense, drawn from the world of nuclear weapons instead of earthquakes and hurricanes, is deterrence. But there’s no reason to believe that will be an effective way to defend against rogue states like North Korea.

A rogue technology in the hands of a rogue government is never a good thing, especially when we would be the pigs in this particular apocalyptic, high-altitude game. But it’s not clear that there’s much to be gained by escalating the fear factor here—not the least because North Korea can’t even seem to get ski resorts right.