Conventional wisdom holds that it will be years before North Korea can credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack. Kim Jong Un’s scientists are still testing only low-yield nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, and have yet to place them on ballistic missiles capable of reaching America’s West Coast.
While its technological shortcomings have been well documented, North Korea’s desire to provoke a nuclear conflict with the U.S. should not be minimized or ignored. Pyongyang is surely close to getting it right.
For South Korea the danger is more immediate. According to physicist David Albright, the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, the North Koreans have between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons and can build as many as five more every year. If Mr. Kim were to detonate one of these bombs in the atmosphere 40 miles above Seoul, it could inflict catastrophic damage on South Korea’s electric power grid, leading to a prolonged blackout that could have deadly consequences.
The United States has 28,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in South Korea stationed below the 38th parallel—and more at sea nearby. An electromagnetic pulse attack on South Korea could play havoc with America’s ability to mount an effective response to North Korean aggression. One hopes the troops manning the two already-deployed batteries of the Thaad ballistic-missile defense system are prepared for such a scenario (in a concession to China, the newly elected South Korean government suspended this week the deployment of four additional launchers).