Tohoku on alert for North Korean rocket debris

by Natsuko Fukue and Mariko Kato

Akita Prefecture resident Ritsuko Sasaki is resigned to the possibility that a part of the rocket North Korea is expected to launch early next month could come crashing down in her area.

“It’s like a natural disaster. What can I do to avoid it?” the housewife asked.

According to the flight path released by North Korea, the rocket, which the country claims is sending a satellite into orbit, will pass over Akita and Iwate prefectures moments after its launch, which is expected sometime between April 4 and 8.

North Korea has notified the International Maritime Organization that the first of the rocket’s two stages is expected to fall into the Sea of Japan off Akita Prefecture. The second is projected to fall into the North Pacific.

Sasaki said she hopes the government takes steps to prevent the rocket from flying over Japan, but is unaware of any plans the local government has to ensure the safety of Akita residents.

In fact, Akita recently set up a risk management bureau, made up of senior officials in various prefectural divisions, including police and policy planning, to notify prefectural offices soon after the rocket is launched.

“We are waiting to be contacted by the government, and will immediately pass on the information to people who may be affected,” said Makoto Sasaki, head of the risk management bureau and a senior official in the governor’s office.

According to Sasaki, local vessels are rarely 130 km from shore in the Sea of Japan, in the area where the first stage is predicted to fall. However, the prefecture is taking no chances, he said.

Sasaki claims that if the rocket strays from its course, the booster might fall nearer the coast and endanger marine traffic.

“Ships have already been warned not to go near the danger zone, but if the rocket goes off course, it would be a problem,” he said. “In that situation, we can only tell the ships to come back to shore.”

Most fishing boats carry radios, but the Japan Coast Guard will distribute some to smaller boats before the launch date, Sasaki said.

The prefecture is also preparing for the chance that the booster falls on land, he said.

“Fire departments can notify citizens as soon as they know roughly where it may come down, using speakers and other means,” he said.

However, Sasaki said he isn’t sure what people can do to protect themselves.

“We still don’t know how we can deal with such a situation. The best possible scenario, of course, is that the rocket keeps to its course and the booster does not come anywhere near land,” he said.

Meanwhile, airlines have already been instructed to avoid the danger zone.

From April 4 to 8, Japan Airlines will change its flight paths to in Europe and Hawaii.

The launch will not affect domestic and other international flights, according to a JAL spokesman. The carrier routinely shifts flight routes to avoid danger, he said.

“For example, when there is a typhoon or military exercise, we change flight routes,” he said. “We do it on a daily basis, so there is no problem (changing the routes to avoid the rocket).”

All Nippon Airways is changing routes to London, Paris and Frankfurt. “There will be only a few minutes’ delay due to the route change,” a spokeswoman said.

“We don’t consider it as a big problem,” she said, adding the PR department has not received any complaints from customers over the change.