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People in the Japanese city of Oga take part in emergency drills March 17 designed to prepare for a potential missile strike.

Japan bolsters evacuation plans as missile threat grows

Some wonder whether emergency steps are enough to protect citizens

TOKYO -- North Korea's increased aggression has spurred Japan to begin revamping outdated evacuation measures against possible missile attacks. Though questions remain concerning these procedures, the steps being taken are welcome indeed.

It was only in October that the government started addressing more seriously an evacuation in the event of a missile strike. The cabinet secretariat opened a civil protection web portal that describes various emergency scenarios, such as if a missile lands on Japanese soil or in territorial waters. Citizens can learn how and when the government issues alerts and sirens, as well as what to do during those situations.

In March, the government conducted its first missile attack evacuation drill in the northwestern city of Oga. Just over 100 citizens reportedly took part in the event, which assumed that the missile ultimately landed outside of Japanese terrain.

Though small in scale, the drill was revolutionary in that it used the J-Alert nationwide disaster warning system. Japan is expected to conduct this training jointly with local governments nationwide starting in June. People from Yamagata and Nagasaki prefectures look forward to taking part in the drills.

Risk awareness gap

Japan's government soon will adopt a policy to begin evacuations immediately upon detecting a missile launch.

Currently, the U.S. military would detect a launch and relay the information to Tokyo and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The central government would alert the public, then track the missile to determine the probability of it landing within the nation's borders. If the likelihood is high, people would be evacuated.

But because this interval between alerting the public and issuing an evacuation order could cost one or two vital minutes, the government will move to start evacuations concurrently with the missile warning. Apparently Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga pushed for the change.

Some in the Japanese public may doubt the urgency for these actions taken by the government, seeing a less critical threat than do administration officials. But Tokyo is in no position to freely share classified information involving the Korean Peninsula gained from Washington and the U.S. military -- particularly concerning the North's armed forces. An imminent threat would only broaden the awareness gap between Japan's government and its people.

But if the Korean Peninsula reaches the brink of armed conflict, a missile attack on Japan will become much more realistic.

Japan instructs people to take shelter in sturdy buildings or underground, the latter being more likely to protect evacuees from the heat, blast and debris of a bomb as well as any chemical agents or similar payloads.

Underground sanctuaries occupy a meaningful place in modern Japanese history. When the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, people who happened to be in the basement at a Bank of Japan branch near the epicenter miraculously survived the blast.

During the Osaka air raids in March the same year, workers at subway stations transported arriving evacuees via the rails, saving numerous lives.

Subways as shelters

Seoul is said to have underground shelters around the city to house citizens against a North Korean bombardment. Japan has yet to build such dedicated installations, but could use existing underground facilities at buildings and subway stations.

Halting subway trains would let the stations and tunnels act as emergency shelters if a missile strike alarm sounds, instantly increasing a city's capacity to accommodate evacuees. Subway tunnels also could shield strike zone escapees from radiation or chemical agents.

Some critics pan the government's recent measures, saying the drills in their present scope are insufficient. Others find it strange that the government would direct people to take refuge in underground locations without determining whether enough space exists.

These commentators have a point. The North Korean missile threat reared its ugly head in 1993 when the regime test-fired Rodong missiles into the Sea of Japan. Japan's government could have decided then to invest in an evacuation infrastructure.

Yet it would be wrong to blame current government staffers tasked with developing a missile evacuation plan.

An armed conflict could occur on the Korean Peninsula at any given moment. This is the time for both the public and private sector to share constructive feedback toward a solution, not for fault-finding from the vantage of hindsight. Government officials appear ready to listen.

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