Debate over Threat of North Korean Attack by Electromagnetic Pulse

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In March, 2017, The Hill published an opinion piece by R. James Woolsey, who directed the CIA from 1993-95, and Peter Vincent Pry, who had previously served in the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA. In their piece, titled “How North Korea Could Kill 90 Percent of Americans,” Woolsey and Pry underscored existing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear threat by pointing to another devastating possibility, attack by electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Noting previous warnings by former national security officials from the Reagan and Clinton administrations, Woolsey and Pry asserted that North Korea could attack the US using a single warhead armed to deliver a “high-altitude electromagnetic pulse” that “could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.”

With two North Korean satellites in orbit over the US “on trajectories consistent with surprise EMP attack,” Woolsey and Pry asked, “Why do the press and public officials ignore or under-report these facts?”

Several days later, Popular Mechanics published a rebuttal of Woolsey and Pry’s argument.

“While North Korea does pose an increasingly serious nuclear threat to the United States,” Kyle Mizokami wrote, “the claim it could kill 300 million Americans by depriving them of electricity is not realistic.” The dramatic claim derived from “the words of Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who describes a novel he had read called One Second After,” Mizokami reported. The book, a work of fiction, imagined an EMP attack on the US, which so frightened Bartlett that, after leaving Congress, he moved into the woods and became a survivalist. In brief, Mizokami wrote, “The claim that North Korea could kill 90 percent of the American people was directly pulled from a science fiction novel.” Mizokami’s Popular Mechanics report went on to note a number of additional problematic claims in Woolsey and Pry’s Hill article.

In April, 2017, the Washington Examiner reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, sought development of a Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) program that would “enable black start recovery of the power grid amidst a cyber-attack on the U.S. energy sector’s critical infrastructure.”

According to the Examiner, “DARPA’s focus is on thwarting a cyber attack, but Pry and Woolsey have also warned that North Korea or Iran could attack the grid with an atmospheric nuclear explosion over the East Coast that will disable the grid and that could end up leading to the death of 90 percent of those in the East.”


Kyle Mizokami, “No, North Korea Can’t Kill 90 Percent of Americans,” Popular Mechanics, March 31, 2017,

Paul Bedard, “Getting Ready: Pentagon to Protect Electric Grid from Massive Attack,” Washington Examiner, April 14, 2017,

Student Researcher: Harmanjit Singh Bansil (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)