Iran's Revolutionary Guards fire a Saegheh missile (illustration
Iran's Revolutionary Guards fire a Saegheh missile (illustrationReuters

In a blockbuster admission, Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) disclosed that the Pentagon now believes North Korea has mastered the ability to miniaturize its nuclear bombs so they can be fitted onto their latest mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are capable of reaching the continental United States.

At the news conference, Adm. Gortney flatly stated, Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland [the continental United States].” He expressed confidence that the US could knock down such a missile if launched by North Korea or its ally, Iran.

He also admitted, however, that it is “very difficult” for the US to counter the threat, because its intelligence is unable to follow the mobile ICBMs and give an efficient warning before they are launched.

The admission was accompanied by the announcement that NORAD is reopening its nuclear-EMP-proof Cheyenne Mountain bunker.

The KN-08 is a road-capable, highly mobile ICBM, which can be hidden anywhere throughout the North Korea and could be fired on a short-countdown virtually undetectable by American intelligence. As Adm. Gortney further explained about the North’s KN-08 ICBM, “It’s the relocatable [highly-mobile, can go anywhere – ML] target set that really impedes our ability to find, fix, and finish the [KN-08] threat. And as the [KN-08] targets move around and if we don’t have a persistent stare [i.e., the ability to monitor its location at all times - ML] and persistent [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] that we do not have over North Korea at this time, that relocatable nature makes it very difficult for us to be able to counter it.”

Despite Adm. Gortney’s concerns, he still believes that if a KN-08 was fired at the US homeland, in the Admiral’s words – “Should one get airborne and come at us [the US homeland], I’m confident we would be able to knock it down.”

Even if this is true, it is not clear if the US ballistic defense could knock down an incoming North Korean ICBM in time, if the nuke is intended as an EMP weapon, which explodes soon after re-entering the atmosphere.

System can defend against Iran strike, too 

In another dramatic revelation, Adm. Gortney revealed that America’s anti-missile missile shield is not only configured to repulse a North Korean missile, but an Iranian ICBM as well. The Admiral explained that the current assessment is that the threat of an ICBM EMP strike comes from North Korea and not from Iran, but that the system could handle both scenarios. “Our system is designed for North Korea, and if we get our assessment wrong, for Iran. Its [the US homeland missile shield] is designed to defend the nation [the homeland] against both those particular threats today,” he said.

Experts have estimated that the KN-08 has a range of 5,600 miles and would be capable of hitting the US’s west coast if launched from North Korea. Experts also believe the missile is not accurate.

However, Adm. Gortney’s statement about North Korea’s nuke-capable KN-08 ICBM must be taken in the context of his simultaneous announcement of the Pentagon’s concern about an EMP-missile strike on the United States homeland.

South Korean intelligence has long believed that North Korea has been developing an EMP-nuclear device. As early as June 2009, Kim Myong Chol, who was an “unofficial” spokesperson of the then-Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, openly threatened use of a “high-altitude detonation of hydrogen bombs that would create a powerful electromagnetic pulse” bomb.” And, in November of 2013, South Korea’s intelligence service (NIS) issued a report to the South Korean parliament that North Korea had “purchased Russian electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry to develop its own version” of a nuclear EMP device.

EMP strike on South Korea?

In 2005, then-USAF Major Colin Miller posited, in a public-domain US Air Force University thesis, that the North Koreans could tactically use a nuclear-EMP weapon on the Korean Peninsula to “level-the playing field” against the electronic dependent forces of the United States and South Korea.  

The tactical North Korean EMP “decapitation” attack would likely bag as POWs the 40,000 living US marines now guarding South Korea because an EMP doesn’t kill human beings, only electronics

A tactical nuclear-EMP aimed at South Korea would not need an ICBM to reach the 30-50 km level above the earth to explode. Rather, it would only need a much smaller short-range missile to achieve its suitable EMP-location above the Korean peninsula for an effective EMP detonation.

Given the degree of cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea, it is highly likely that any nuclear-EMP-technology mastered by North Korea has already been shared with Iran. Therefore, the EMP-proliferation danger from North Korea to Iran is a catastrophic danger.

North Korea has been threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US for two years, as explained in this ABC News report from 2013. At the time of the report, North Korea was said to be "years away" from a developing a missile that could hit the US: These "years" have apparently passed.

And yet, inexplicably, US President Barack Obama is currently negotiating a deal with Iran that he himself has admitted would enable it to manufacture its own nuclear weapons, 12-13 years after it is signed. 

Gil Ronen contributed to this report.