North Korea’s missile launches in February, March and April of 2017 came during a period of heightened tension between the US and North Korea, and the implosion of two of them seconds after being launched brought speculation as to whether the US or China was responsible for their sabotage. Both the US and China have electronic and cyber warfare capabilities and programs designed to use electromagnetic pulse weapons to attack, protect, and support military operations. North Korea also has electronic and cyber warfare capabilities. Although there has been no speculation as to whether some of the failed missile tests over the years (or those conducted recently) were actually North Korea’s testing of a High Powered Microwave (HPM) device, fears have been uttered of its ability to use High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) weapons, deliverable through its long-range missiles, against the US.
North Korea’s use of HEMP in the immediate future to attack the US mainland is not per se strategically realistic but it is reasonable to assume that any future war on the Korean Peninsula would entail the use of both HPM and HEMP weapons. The Asia Pacific region, however, is unprepared for any type of hybrid war that would encompass the combined use of conventional and unconventional capabilities. The present situation in the Korean Peninsula, therefore, is untenable, and past policies employed by the US under the doctrine of strategic patience have had limited success. A doctrine of strategic coercion, as advocated by the Trump administration, is also likely to have limited success. The US, South Korea, Japan, China, or Russia cannot alone contain North Korea and its intentional, conventional and unconventional, asymmetric provocations in the present. Through a strategic doctrine of electronic and cyber warfare containment, however, it would be possible for certain strategically significant actors to contain North Korea, while other strategically significant actors simultaneously work toward a peaceful resolution to the North Korean issue. A concerted, multipronged, and strategic approach is warranted to not only diffuse tensions but also to bring about lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The remainder of the article is structured as follows: Section two provides readers with a general overview of electronic warfare (EW), cyber warfare (CW), cyberspace (CS), the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, and North Korea’s capabilities. The general information provided on EW, CW, CS, the EMS, and EMP weapons were derived from a combination of sources ranging from the US Army’s newly released manual on Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations,1 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Publications on Electronic Warfare2 and Cyberspace Operations,3 and expert studies.4 Information on North Korea’s capabilities were derived from open-source, expert studies, and industry reports.5 Section three utilizes the information provided in section two to make the argument as to why a strategic EW/CW containment doctrine is needed and outline some of its parameters. It should be noted that this article is intentionally designed to be brief and exploratory in nature. Finally, section four concludes that a EW/CW containment doctrine can only be one pillar of a new concerted, multilateral, multipronged strategy to bring about peace in the Korea Peninsula.
An Overview of EW, CW, Cyberspace, the EMS, and EMP Weapons and North Korea’s Capabilities
EW and CW are not new to 21st century warfare. What is new, however, is the simultaneous integration of them into a state’s overarching warfare strategy and operational plans. A basic shared understanding of EW, CW, Cyberspace, the EMS, and EMP weapons is, therefore, necessary to have a discussion on why a EW/CW containment doctrine or strategy is needed in the present to contain North Korea’s asymmetrical provocations and to sketch its parameters. While the first sub-section provides readers with a basic understanding of each concept and their relationship to one another, the second sub-section provides a historical overview of North Korea’s EW/CW development.
EW, CW, Cyberspace, the EMS, and EMP Weapons
EW is understood to be the use of military action to gain superiority in cyberspace and over the EMS by synchronizing operations, attacks, support, and protection across a network through the use of electromagnetic and directed energy in an operational area, which encompasses both the military and civilian information, communication, and technology infrastructures. Superiority is understood as the degree to which an actor can manage the EMS to engage in either offensive or defensive capabilities. Offensive and defensive capabilities include electronic attacks, electronic protection, and electronic support. Electronic attacks are the use of radiofrequency weapons, lasers or particle beams that use either electromagnetic or directed energy against electronic equipment to prevent or reduce use of the EMS. Deception, intrusion, jamming, probing and pulse are the most common types of electromagnetic attack actions. Electronic protection are actions undertaken to prevent against jamming such as frequency hopping; to protect equipment or resisting an attack through hardening, masking, and emission control; and, to destroy the jamming capabilities of an adversary with anti-radiation missiles.6 Electronic support actions include collecting intelligence on non-communications electromagnetic radiation; detecting, locating, identifying, and evaluating electromagnetic threats; and protecting the EMS and networks in an operational area from an adversary’s acquisition of information of value. EW operations and actions are separate from yet complementary to CW operations.
CW is understood to be the use of cyber capabilities in cyberspace to carry out offensive and defensive operations and actions to attain superiority in an information environment. Cyber capabilities refer to devices, computer programs, and techniques that are used to create cyber effects. Cyberspace is a “global domain within the information environment consisting of interdependent networks of information technology infrastructures and resident data, including the Internet, telecommunication networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.”7 Cyber actions include the defense and protection of information networks through cyberattacks and cyber security; and, the detection of threats through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Cyberspace superiority is attained when an actor has a degree of dominance that either prohibits or restricts an adversary from interfering with an operation or warfare capabilities.8 The informational dimension connects cyberspace to the EMS.
The EMS is the transport medium connecting cyberspace operations and electronic warfare operations. It is defined as the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. Management of the EMS is, therefore, critical to effectively employ capabilities and wage operations. Activities undertaken to manage the EMS include frequency assignment, host nation coordination, and the establishment of policies for planning, management, and execution of operations. Spectrum management becomes even more critical for the use of EMP weapons, particularly given their impact on both civilian and military infrastructures.
EMP is “an instantaneous, intense energy field that can overload or disrupt at a distance numerous electrical systems and high technology microcircuits, which are especially sensitive to power surges.”9 Two of the most common weaponized forms of EMP are HEMP and HPM. HEMP is a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse that is released into the atmosphere through the power and radiation of a nuclear explosion for the purpose of damaging, disrupting, or destroying electronic equipment and communication systems. Its actual impact, however, depends upon the design of the nuclear device, the altitude of the burst, and the degree of hardening of the equipment and systems operating on both the civilian and military infrastructures. HPM is an instantaneous high-powered microwave electromagnetic energy pulse. It is created through special electronic equipment that transforms a chemical reaction or explosion into microwaves, which are damaging to electronic equipment and systems near the blast. Although the blast of HPM is smaller and more direct, it is more difficult to harden against; thus, civilian and military equipment and systems are more susceptible to damage, disruption, or destruction. In any future war on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is likely to use both HEMP and HPM weapons. HPM weapons have the potential to transform ground dynamics of any invasion — either by the North into the South or the South into the North.
North Korea’s Capabilities
EW and CW have long been central to North Korea’s asymmetrical military capabilities. In the 20th century, Kim Jong Il said that EW is the “key to victory in modern warfare,”10 while Kim Jung Un highlighted the significance and power of CW in the 21st century.11 Unlike many countries who considered EW and CW as separate yet complimentary forms of warfare in the 20th century, North Korea adopted an approach in 1990 that coupled EW, CW and Information Warfare, which it called Electronic Warfare and Electronic Intelligence Warfare (EW/EIW). For the sake of consistency, EW/CW will continue to be used for EW/EIW. Today, North Korea’s EW/CW operational understanding is similar to the understanding of cyberspace and electronic warfare operations articulated in the US Army’s 2017 Field Manual on Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations. Its capabilities, however, do not parallel that of the US Armed Forces.
North Korea’s EW/CW developments can be broken down into four periods: WWII-1960s, 1960s-1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s.12 In the first period, North Korea was introduced to SIGINT, EW, and EIW by the former Soviet Union in WWII. SIGINT was used in the Korean War. In the second period, education and curriculum development were introduced in North Korea’s civilian and military schools and universities; military personnel received specialized training in EW and SIGINT by the former Soviet Union and China; and, a small number of mainframe computers were acquired. By the end of the period, North Korea’s military schools and universities had specialized EW/SIGINT curricula, which were taught by those who had been trained in the 1960s and 1970s. Schools were also no longer as reliant on Chinese and Eastern European foreign instructors.
North Korea’s EW/CW capabilities may not be comparable to that of the US armed forces but its knowledge appears to be far more advanced than what some may expect.
In conclusion, North Korea’s EW/CW capabilities may not be comparable to that of the US armed forces but its knowledge appears to be far more advanced than what some may expect. Poor informational, communication, and technological infrastructural development remain the largest stumbling blocks in the present. Despite the challenges, North Korea’s capabilities are only likely to advance in the years to come, particularly as its main adversaries’ civilian and military informational and technological dependencies grow. Imagine the chaos that would ensue with the use of a HEMP weapon in the region or the use of HPM devices in any ground war. While military equipment and communication systems among the surrounding countries’ armed forces are likely to withstand a potential HEMP attack (depending of course on the altitude and degree of hardening), civilian infrastructure would not be as resistant. Similarly, in a ground invasion, the use of HPM in South Korea would create social chaos; thus, creating a factor not per se taken into consideration in past strategy designs and operation plans. North Korea has consistently strategized in terms of contemporary asymmetrical warfare, while its adversaries continue to largely think in terms of and approach it with ideas rooted in conventional warfare capabilities. An asymmetrical strategic approach is needed most at the present to contain North Korea’s asymmetrical provocations.
Strategic Containment of North Korea’s Asymmetrical Provocations
North Korea’s asymmetrical provocations are perceived to be a threat to regional stability and international security, and a surgical strike, war, or regime change are not viable coercive policy options for the region or its actors. A coercive option that has not per se been tried is a multilateral containment strategy designed to use EW/CW capabilities over a sustained period, while other non-coercive measures are employed. The aim of such a strategy would be to contain North Korea asymmetrical provocative operations through disruption and/or limiting the effects of its actions.13 The immediate asymmetrical provocations of concern are the missile launches and cyberattacks. It would have to be multilateral because of the nature of the EMS and North Korea’s information and communication networks; its history of changing the location of where missiles are launched and use of frequency hopping; and, finally, its running of cyber operations from countries in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East regions, as well as using IP addresses from countries in South America and global non-state actors to wage cyberattacks.
The nature of the EMS grid and the EW/CW operations to be undertaken in a containment strategy would determine which actors are strategically significant. Despite the global positioning of the US D.O.D Information Network and the nature of the South Korean and Japanese military networks, the US, South Korea, and Japan could not alone sustain a EW/CW containment strategy. Other regional actors such as China and Thailand (to name just two) would be strategically significant.14 Global state and non-state actors would also have to be considered as well as an assessment conducted of their impact on containment operations because of the relationship they have with North Korea. Given the relevance of a multiple set of actors to the running of EW/CW containment operations, spectrum management would be extremely important yet also difficult, as regionally significant actors would have to take part in spectrum management operations (SMOs). Multilateral SMOs are not something factored into or discussed in some of the new manuals on cyberspace and electronic warfare operations. One could imagine the numerous national security issues that would be raised by regional actors when contemplating a EW/CW containment strategy. Nonetheless, it is something worth pondering, as the current situation is presently untenable. North Korea will continue developing its asymmetrical program and employing an asymmetrical strategy. It is time that we similarly think and act asymmetrically, but on a multilateral, multidimensional game board.
Conclusion: Asymmetrical Strategic Containment — Only a Pillar in a Needed Multipronged Approach
An asymmetrical strategic containment doctrine employing EW/CW capabilities to triangulate and contain North Korea’s asymmetrical provocations is not alone sufficient. A multilateral, multipronged approach is needed, which incorporates both state and non-state actors and balances the symmetrical and asymmetrical capabilities of the main actors so that a win-win solution can be attained. Past approaches tend to neglect the role of non-state actors. The non-state actors we have in mind are not the typical civil society actors, as they have long played a role in endeavors to implement non-coercive policies. Rather, those who have yet to be assessed and factored into the equation are illicit actors.
North Korea is a significant actor within the global illicit economy — from the training of insurgents and engaging in arms, drugs, and human trafficking to the proliferation of computer software, hardware, and the distribution of technological knowledge. Many of the illicit actors whom North Korea has relations with are connected to political networks in their countries and across the region (e.g. illicit actors in Africa and South America) who are dependent on the informal and illicit economy. A traditional multilateral approach will never work with a non-traditional and non-conformist state actor. We need to think creatively and outside of the box when developing a new, multilateral, and multipronged asymmetrical approach to North Korea, particularly if the world is keen on facilitating stability on the Korean Peninsula.
1. US Army (2017), FM 3-12: Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations, pp. 1-108.
2. US Joint Chiefs of Staff (2007), Joint Publication 3-13.1: Electronic Warfare, pp. 1-115.
3. US Joint Chiefs of Staff (2013), Joint Publication 3-12R: Cyber Operations, pp. 1-70.
4. See: Poisel (2013), Information Warfare and Electronic Warfare Systems, pp. 1-414. Hobbes (2008), “Chapter 19: Electronic and Information Warfare,” in Anderson (2008), Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems, 2nd Edition, pp. 559-593. Retrieved from: http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/Papers/SEv2-c19.pdf. Miller (2010), “Electromagnetic Pulse Threats in 2010,” Center for Strategy and Technology: Air War College, Air University, pp. 383-410. Retrieved from: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cst/bugs_ch12.pdf. Wilson (2008), “High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments,” CRS Report for Congress, pp. 1-16. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/files/Ebomb.pdf. Vass (2004), “Defense against electromagnetic pulse weapons,” AARMS, 3(3), pp. 443-457. Retrieved from: http://www.zmne.hu/aarms/docs/Volume3/Issue3/pdf/13vass.pdf.
5. See: Jun, LaFoy, and Sohn (2015), “North Korea’s Cyber Operations: Strategies and Responses,” Center for Strategic and Intelligence Studies, pp. 1-97. Mansourov (2014), “North Korea’s Cyber Warfare and Challenges for the US-ROK Alliance,” Korea Economic Institute of America: Academic Paper Series, pp. 1-17. HP Security Research (2014), “HP Security Briefing Episode 16: Profiling an enigma: The mystery of North Korea’s cyber threat landscape,” pp. 1-75. Berkofsky (2013), “North Korea’s Military-What Do They Have, What do they Want?,” Instituto Per Gli Studi Di Politica Internazionale, pp. 1-6. Retrieved from: http://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/analysis_161_2013_0.pdf. Scobell and Sanford (2007), “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pongyang’s Conventional Forces of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles,” Strategic Studies Institute, pp. 1-177. Bermudez (2005). “Chapter 13: SIGINT, EW, and EIW in the Korean People’s Army: A Overview of Development and Organization,” in Mansouroy (2005), Bytes and Bullets: Information Technology Revolution and National Security, Honolulu: Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, pp. 234-275. Retrieved from: http://apcss.org/Publications/Edited%20Volumes/BytesAndBullets/CH13.pdf.
6. Hobbes (2008), p. 560; US Army (2017), p. 1-29.
7. US Army (2017), p. 1-2; US Joint Chiefs of Staff (2013).
8. US Army (2017), p. 1-3.
9. Wilson (2008), p. 1.
10. Bermudez (2005), p. 5.
11. Mansourov (2014), p. 1.
12. Bermudez (2005)
13. For example, during the Aramco cyberattack, Saudi Arabia was able to shut down parts of the grid from which the computer network systems operated in order to contain the attack.
14. Much of North Korea’s ICT infrastructure is dependent on China. North Korea’s Star Joint Venture company provides internet access in cooperation with Thailand’s Loxley Asia Pacific.