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North Korea Crisis

Japan and US scramble to perfect missile attack responses

Hawaii's false alarm offers lessons to improve safety protocols

North Korea increased the number of ballistic missile tests last year.   © KCNA/Reuters

TOKYO -- As North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear and missile development programs, Japan and the U.S., as well as South Korea, are left to tackle the challenge of saving as many people as possible in case the unthinkable does occur.

The tense situation in the Korean Peninsula is causing Washington and Tokyo to fortify their missile defense and alert systems. The allies are also hashing out plans to evacuate their citizens from South Korea and other places if the need arises. But those efforts are also revealing sobering shortfalls in their current capabilities.

The SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor system being developed jointly by U.S. and Japan missed its target in a test conducted at the end of January. That month also saw the botched missile alert in Hawaii, a U.S. state within a 20-minute range of North Korean rockets.

Miko, a Honolulu resident, woke up at 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 13 to a warning sent to her mobile phone of an inbound missile -- "not a drill." Thinking she was about to die in a nuclear attack, the 47-year-old woman called her mother to tell her "I love you." Miko's husband shielded their son in bed, waiting for the world to end.

It took a full 38 minutes for Miko and others like her to get the all-clear notice from Hawaii's emergency management agency. During those anxiety-ridden minutes, callers jammed the agency's phone lines.

Hawaii has been moving forward with its own nuclear threat preparedness program in response to North Korea's barrage of missile tests. Last July, the state emergency management agency launched an educational campaign featuring the slogan, "Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned."

The key message for Hawaiians is to run inside buildings if they hear ballistic strike sirens, and to listen for updates on radios. The state has conducted monthly outdoor drills of this nature since November.

But not everybody was up to speed on the evacuation protocols. "I found out what I was supposed to do by checking the state's website after receiving the alert," said Ria Nakama, a 35-year-old shop worker.

This missile alert was mistakenly sent to mobile phones in Hawaii on Jan. 13.

"If North Korean missiles had higher precision, the U.S. government would think seriously about a strike," said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, a think tank in Hawaii.

But calls to toughen the U.S. stance against North Korea were not Hawaiians' main response after the false alarm. Allison Runes, a student at the University of Hawaii, wants President Donald Trump to exercise self-restraint. "A pre-emptive strike will bring about a ruinous outcome," she said.

Hawaiians have directed most of their criticism at state authorities, whose botched action elevated fears for what to expect if disaster struck.

"What's most frightening is when a missile actually strikes, but people no longer believe the alerts," said Steven, a 47-year-old employee at a Honolulu hotel.  

The state of Hawaii said an emergency management worker sounded the false alarm in error after mistaking a surprise missile drill for the real thing. Two-person verifications and other mechanisms will be implemented to prevent a recurrence, Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Defense, told The Nikkei.

"It will take two people to log into the system," he said.

Evacuation procedures will also be posted at public schools, and information will be made available in several languages for international tourists.

A school in Fukuoka, Japan, conducts a missile strike drill.

Japan is also taking lessons from Hawaii in improving air defenses, as well as informing the public of emergency procedures.

Whenever a missile is expected to land anywhere in Japanese territory or cross national airspace, the national J-Alert system is activated. Warnings are also issued to local government agencies.

But defective radio equipment and other problems may keep the information from being relayed to some residents. The drills conducted November last year were supposed to be a nationwide affair, but alerts did not reach people in 12 localities.

The J-Alert prompts people to seek shelter indoors or underground. But according to a survey conducted in 12 prefectures, 21.5% of residents said they did not know what to do when the alarm sounded in those areas last September during a North Korean missile test.

When asked whether they took refuge during that incident, around 60% of the respondents said they either felt it was not necessary, or they were unsure of the correct action to take.  

Three days after Hawaii's false alarm, Japan's public broadcaster NHK issued an erroneous J-Alert notice. Because a North Korean missile can hit Japan within 10 minutes, there is an even smaller margin for error.  

"Japan's false alert was also reported here in Hawaii," said John Rem, a taxi driver in Honolulu. "Will Japan be all right?"

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