SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s launch of a spy satellite on Wednesday ended in embarrassing failure but still confused the public and raised security concerns in neighboring South Korea and Japan, which are wary of the North’s growing arsenal of weapons.
About 14 minutes after the launch at 6:27 a.m., authorities in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, sent text messages to all cellphones in the city urging people to prepare to move to safer places, without explain the reason. In some areas, the warning was broadcast over loudspeakers.
Then, about 22 minutes later, the Interior and Security Ministry sent messages to Seoul residents saying the previous warning had been sent in error. Ministry officials said it was only intended for people living on a frontline island off the west coast that is closer to the rocket’s flight path, and that a warning had been given to them. was sent at 6:29.
Seoul, a city of 10 million, is just an hour’s drive from the heavily fortified border with rival North Korea. It would take North Korean forward-deployed missiles only minutes to reach Seoul.
But it is extremely rare for South Korea to issue such missile warnings, even though North Korea has conducted more than 100 missile tests in the past 17 months. Wednesday’s text messages were only the third of its kind since 2016.
South Korea’s military said it instructs the Security Ministry to send such phone alerts only when North Korean rockets are flying toward South Korean territory or debris falls are expected. Most North Korean launches ended with weapons falling harmlessly into the ocean, except in a few cases where missiles were sent over Japan.
Social media in South Korea was abuzz with criticism of the warning message.
“Can we get an alert at 6:41 a.m.? If a real missile had been launched, it could have landed in Seoul before the alert message,” said a Twitter user.
Others complained that the alert did not provide any useful details, such as why they should go to safer places and where to go.
“People got a flurry of text messages today but nothing really happened. When they get evacuation alerts next time they’ll be thinking, ‘It’s going to be okay, let’s wait a bit,'” said Betty Lee, English teacher in Seoul.
Another Seoul resident said she had trouble calming down her crying 10-year-old daughter who was begging her not to go to work after the morning alert.
“She kept crying as we turned on the TV news to see what was going on. She thought things were going to fall from the sky,” said the resident, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Byeon, citing privacy concerns.
Later Wednesday, Seoul City Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized for causing confusion among many residents. He described the incident as a possible overreaction by a manager, not a false alert, saying security issues should be addressed aggressively.
In Japan, authorities activated a missile warning system at 6:30 a.m. for Okinawa prefecture in the southwest, which is believed to be in the path of the rocket. The advisory was lifted more than 30 minutes later after the government determined the rocket was not heading for Japan.
Okinawans said they were back to their daily lives as schools and businesses opened as usual, though they still worried about a possible second launch attempt by North Korea. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan would continue to deploy missile defense systems on a number of remote southern islands, at least until the end of the launch window announced by North Korea on Monday. June 11.
Eri Nakajima, a hotel worker in Okinawa’s capital Naha, said her family woke up when the alert went off on all their cellphones. She said she had often heard of North Korean missile launches in the past, but was still concerned when she saw a map of Okinawa flashing yellow on TV.
“About 80% to 90% of my feeling was that everything would be fine, but I was also worried that something would go wrong and debris would fall,” Nakajima said.
Yui Nose, a cafe owner in Naha, said residents were told to turn off their kitchen fans and seal windows.
“It was scary because we couldn’t do anything about it. There are no underground shelters here,” she said.
Shigeyuki Azuma, owner of a jewelry store in Naha, said he was worried about a negative impact on local tourism.
“But we can’t do anything about it and we just have to let the government take action,” Azuma said.
Lai reported from Okinawa. Associated Press reporters Hiro Komae in Okinawa and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.