WASHINGTON (CN) – Amid an escalating war of words between North Korea and President Donald Trump, an expert told members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee Thursday to look at the state of disaster-stricken Puerto Rico to understand the havoc an electromagnetic pulse attack by Pyongyang could wreak.
An EMP attack, done with a high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon, could knock out the U.S. power grid and bring life to a halt, Peter Vincent Pry said during a Thursday afternoon hearing.
“Look at what’s happening in Puerto Rico now if you want to know what the consequences of an EMP attack would be,” said Pry, chief of staff with the congressional EMP commission.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria whipped through the island destroying nearly all of the electricity grid, only 10 percent of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans – American citizens – have power.
Imagine what would happen to Puerto Ricans, Pry posited, if the United States was unable to help for a year. Most would perish, he said.
“That’s what would happen to the United States in the event of a North Korean EMP attack,” Pry continued, “which they could do today, alright? And with a single weapon.”
Pry’s warning comes a month after Pyongyang said it had tested a hydrogen bomb capable of carrying out an EMP attack, marking the first time the rogue nation has expressed interest in doing so.
The expert described an EMP attack to the Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee as “super lightning,” and dismissed those who say such an attack is unlikely.
As with the 9/11 attacks, Pry said, people will consider an EMP attack highly unlikely until the day it happens.
“North Korea has the capability of making an EMP right now, and does – right now – constitute an existential threat to the United States,” he said.
“A single weapon could put an EMP field down over not just the United States, but all of North America that would cause the collapse of electric grids, transportation, communications – all the life-sustaining critical infrastructure,” he continued. “And it wouldn’t be a temporary blackout either. We might not ever recover from it.”
Without protections in place to shield the electric grid, Pry said an attack could result in millions of American deaths.
The subcommittee called the hearing, dubbed “Empty threat or serious danger: North Korea’s risk to the homeland,” amid rising tensions with North Korea.
Trump stirred the pot last month during a speech at the United Nations, referring to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocketman” – a nickname he bestowed upon the leader in reference to the nation’s ongoing missile tests – and warning that he may be forced to “totally destroy” the country.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he said.
More recently, Trump hinted cryptically that a gathering of military leaders on October 5 was “the calm before the storm” and telling reporters present “you’ll find out” what that means.
The comments fueled concerns that war between the United States and North Korea was imminent. During an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Sean Hannity asked Trump “what was the calm before the storm.”
Trump responded: “We can’t let this to go on. We just can’t. Now you can say what you want but this should have been handled 25 years ago – it should have been handled 20 years ago, or 10 years ago or five years ago. It should have been handled by numerous – not just Obama – but certainly President Obama should have taken care of it.”
Now the conflict is so advanced that “something has to be done,” Trump said. “We can’t allow this to go on.”
Trump described a diplomatic deal brokered with Pyongyang under President Bill Clinton as a failure. Before the ink dried “they were already starting again with the missiles, and with the nuclear, frankly,” Trump said.
On Wednesday, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho escalated the war of words further, saying that Mr. Trump had “lit the wick of the war.” Reuters reported that Ri told Russian state news agency Tass that Trump had crossed a line in his September speech to the U.N.
“With his bellicose and insane statement at the United Nations, Trump, you can say, has lit the wick of a war against us,” Ri had said.
“We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words,” he added.
Given the nature of North Korean threats, Pry said the stakes are high.
While the subcommittee took a recess to vote, Pry explained in an interview why he thinks North Korea might turn to an EMP attack.
It “would be to destroy us as a society, and if we got in a war to make sure that we wouldn’t win,” Pry said. “Even if we destroyed them, turned them into a plate of glass, they would destroy us too by taking [out] our electric grid,” he said.
According to Pry, it will take about $2 billion to protect the electric grid and “transform a civilization-ending catastrophe” into “a manageable disaster.”
If terms of how fast the work could be done, Pry said much could be done in six months and about 3 ½ years of working “at a leisurely pace” to complete.
“There’s no excuse for us to be vulnerable,” he said. “And if we protected against the worst threat, which is EMP, it would also protect us against the worst-case cyberthreats, physical sabotage and hurricanes.”