A finger on the pulse of real danger to the west

Kim Jong-un is no laughing matter. In his pudgy hands, this array of technology poses a global threat of spine-chilling, epic scale.  

Truth can be stranger than fiction. Until last week, an entire Australian state plunging into darkness seemed unimaginable, yet it happened. So contemplate a whole country going dark, not for a few hours or days but for a year. If that transpired, say, to the United States there would be catastrophic global impact.

A US Congressional Committee reported a scenario like this is not only possible, but its death toll – from societal collapse, disease and starvation – could mount into the hundreds of millions. And after events this past month in North Korea and China, the threat is more credible than you might suppose.

I first started worrying about this while seated at an ASX-20 company's board table three years ago. We were reviewing the top 10 emerging global insurance risks. Rating high on that list were nuclear electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).

Nuclear EMPs are like massive solar flares though they're man-made, caused by nuclear blasts high in the sky. EMPs fry every unprotected electric or electronic device in their path in a nano-second.

The US's Starfish Prime in 1962 was the first serious nuclear EMP, a high-altitude nuclear device detonated 400km above the Pacific Ocean. It caused blackouts and phone outages 1500km away in Hawaii. If repeated in today's very connected world, Hawaii would instantly become a digital black hole. Hawaiians would have the "internet of no things". The surf would be up, and everything else would be down.

Nuclear tests

As I sat at that board table, Bruce Springsteen's lyric "You can't start a fire without a spark" leapt into my head. I began imagining some of the sparks that might ignite an EMP.

Worryingly, this year alone in China and North Korea, we've had five of those sparks, three in the past few weeks.

January 6: North Korea conducts its fourth nuclear test. February 7: Pyongyang successfully launches a Kwangmyŏngsŏng "earth observation" satellite (KMS-4) from an Unha rocket. (As I write this piece, KMS-4's orbit positions it 468km above Australia.) September 9: The Hermit Kingdom conducts its fifth nuclear test. September 20: North Korean scientists ground-test what the secretive state's news agency says is "a new type of high-power engine of a carrier rocket for the geostationary satellite."September 21: China launches a criminal investigation into a major Chinese business conglomerate, Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. Hongxiang has allegedly supplied materials and laundered money for North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, disguising it all to avoid UN sanctions.

So, despite sanctions, despite a basket-case economy, Kim Jong-un, the rogue state's 32-year-old cherub-faced despot, has managed to source the money and supplies that might allow him to send a nuclear-armed satellite into orbit.

No matter how weird his haircut may be, and despite his ban this month on sarcasm and satire – perhaps because of comments about his hairdo – Kim Jong-un is no laughing matter. In his pudgy hands, this array of technology poses a global threat of spine-chilling, epic scale.

So dramatic, so scary were the consequences of a nuclear EMP – and so possible – I left that board meeting three years ago committed to writing a thriller about it.

(Spoiler alert) Unaware that a real Chinese company might be funding North Korea's nuclear program, I created a fictional one in my novel. Perhaps equally presciently, I set the action of The Tao Deception in Dandong, the precise city that hugs the North Korean border in China's remote northeast and hosts the headquarters of the accused Hongxiang company.

Stepping up co-operation

A thriller writer's job – like a company director's – is to ask the "what if" questions. By doing that, if a mere novelist can "predict" what's been happening in China and North Korea before anyone knew it was fact, perhaps  the possibility of an actual North Korean nuclear EMP might be more than an edge-of-the-seat entertainment.

How many more sparks will world leaders tolerate before North Korea ignites a hell on Earth for the rest of us? The good news is that on September 9, US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced they were stepping up co-operation to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. But the increasing pace of Kim Jong-un's progress suggests they need to be quick.

In my novel, the political leaders continue to fumble, so it's up to feisty Australian ex-spy Tori Swyft to race against the clock, risking her life in a bid to stop the catastrophe.

In the real world, let's hope we don't need a Tori Swyft. But I suspect we do. Again to quote Springsteen, "the message keeps getting clearer" yet it seems "we're just dancing in the dark".

This article first appeared in Australian Financial Review on 6 October 2016