SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s launch of a spy satellite on Wednesday ended in an embarrassing failure, but still prompted public confusion and security jitters in neighboring South Korea and Japan, which are wary of the North’s growing weapons arsenal.
About 14 minutes after the launch at 6:27 a.m., authorities in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, sent text messages to all mobile phones in the city urging people to prepare to move to safer places, without explaining the reason. In some areas, the warning was broadcast over loudspeakers.
Then, about 22 minutes later, the Interior and Safety Ministry sent messages to Seoul residents saying the earlier warning was sent in error. Ministry officials said it was only intended for people living on a front-line island off the west coast that is closer to the rocket’s flight path, and that a warning had been sent to them at 6:29 a.m.
Seoul, a city of 10 million people, is only an hour’s drive from the heavily fortified border with rival North Korea. It would only take a few minutes for forward-deployed North Korean missiles to reach Seoul.
But it’s extremely rare for South Korea to issue such missile alerts, 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 their kind since 2016.
South Korea’s military said it asks the safety ministry to send such phone alerts only when North Korean rockets fly in the direction of South Korean territory or falling debris is expected. Most North Korean launches have ended with weapons falling harmlessly in the ocean, except in a few cases when missiles were sent over Japan.
Social media in South Korea were abuzz with criticism of the alert message.
“Is it OK for us to receive an alert at 6:41 a.m.? If a real missile was launched, it could have landed in Seoul earlier than the alert message,” one Twitter user said.
Others complained that the alert didn’t provide any useful details, such as why they needed to go to safer places and where to go.
“People received a flurry of texts today, but nothing really happened. When they receive evacuation alerts next time, their thinking would be, ‘It’s going to be fine, let’s wait a little,’’’ said Betty Lee, an English teacher in Seoul.
Another Seoul resident said she struggled to calm her crying 10-year-old daughter who begged her not to go to work after the early 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 family name, Byeon, citing privacy concerns.
Later Wednesday, Seoul City Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized for causing confusion for many residents. He described the incident as a possible overreaction by an official, not a mistaken alert, saying that safety-related issues must be dealt with aggressively.
In Japan, authorities activated a missile warning system at 6:30 a.m. for Okinawa prefecture in the southwest, which was believed to be in the rocket’s path. The advisory was lifted more than 30 minutes later after the government determined that the rocket wasn’t heading to Japan.
Residents of Okinawa said they returned 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 will continue to deploy missile defense systems on a number of remote southern islands, at least until North Korea’s announced launch window ends June 11.
Eri Nakajima, a hotel employee in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, said her family woke up when the alert went off on all of their mobile phones. She said she has frequently heard of North Korean missile launches in the past, but was still worried when she saw a map of Okinawa flashing in yellow on TV.
“About 80% to 90% of my feeling was that it would be OK, but I also worried that something might go wrong and debris might come falling down,” Nakajima said.
Yui Nose, a cafe owner in Naha, said residents were asked to turn off ventilation fans in their kitchens and seal off windows.
“It was scary because there was nothing we could do about it. There are no underground shelters here.” she said.
Shigeyuki Azuma, a jewelry shop owner in Naha, said he’s worried about a negative impact on local tourism.
“But we cannot do anything about it and just have to leave it to the government to take measures,” Azuma said.
Lai reported from Okinawa. Associated Press journalists Hiro Komae in Okinawa and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.