The mobile text alert that Seoul Metropolitan Government sent out to citizens on Wednesday morning when North Korea launched a rocket caused confusion as it was corrected a little later.
At around 6:41 am, after the North’s launch, Seoul sent an alert message that read “Alert issued for Seoul at 6:32 am today. Citizens, please prepare to evacuate and allow children and the elderly to evacuate first.”
Seoul citizens' mobile phones blared the alert alarm, but there was no information on what emergency situation caused the alert, where to take shelter, and what to do.
Moreover, the message arrived nine minutes after the alert was issued -- and 12 minutes after South Korea detected the North’s rocket launch. It took six minutes before the North Korean projectile crashed into the sea west of a South Korean island. If the North fires a missile, it can reach Seoul within two minutes. A belated alert in a real situation will cause a lot of damage.
And 22 minutes later the Ministry of the Interior and Safety sent out a mobile text message that read “Attention, the alert issued by Seoul Metropolitan Government at 6:41 am was erroneous.”
For the 22 minutes before the correction message came from the ministry, citizens went through a hectic time trying to figure out what the emergency situation was, freezing the mobile version of Naver, a major Korean web portal, for a while.
Eventually, at 7:25 am, 22 minutes after the correction message, the Seoul Metropolitan Government sent a message that the alert “was lifted,” but there was no mention of an error.
The ministry noted that it had informed Seoul and other provincial governments that the alert was issued for two western islands close to North Korea. Its position is that Seoul did something it did not have to.
Seoul argued the ministry did not confine the alert to the islands, so it acted on its own judgment. It says it may have responded excessively but that its action was not wrong. The government needs to decide beforehand whether to issue an alert for Seoul if the North fires a rocket again along a similar path.
The differences between the positions of the city and the ministry seem to be ascribable to mutual misunderstanding, but shows that the correct course of action was not clearly defined within the government.
Separately from controversy over whether Seoul’s alert was erroneous, it seems difficult to call the alert itself into question.
North Korea usually launched missiles towards the East Sea but this launch headed southward. Even though the rocket had been predicted to fly over the West Sea, an unexpected incident could happen. Moreover, about 10 million people of the country’s 51 million population reside in the capital.
What is regrettable is, if Seoul had provided information that the alert was issued because of North Korea’s rocket launch and if it had lifted the alert more quickly, citizens would have felt less anxious.
The South Korean people face one of the world’s worst dictatorial governments that threatens nuclear attacks without hesitation. South and North Korea are technically still at war. Many people seem to have almost forgotten this reality.
Civil defense training against air raids resumed last month after the Moon Jae-in administration suspended it in August, 2017. Public sector employees participated, but training involving the whole nation has not resumed yet.
Above all, realistic training is essential to coping well with real situations. The alert chaos between Seoul and the Interior Ministry stems largely from lack of training. Through training, the efficiency of communication in the government must be raised.
With the North Korean threat looming larger than ever, the public need to be familiarized with what to do in an emergency situation. Realistic training must be repeated to prevent the recurrence of confusion exposed on Wednesday.