Two false alarms leave Japan egg-faced

by Jun Hongo

North Korea may have spent Saturday toying with a jumpy Japan over its plan to send a rocket over the Tohoku region, but it managed to cause a meteoric embarrassment to Tokyo — twice — without ever pushing the launch button.

In two false alarms hours apart that Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada called “inexcusable,” the Self Defense Forces wrongfully alerted the public that North Korea had launched a rocket from the Musudan-ri launchpad. The ministry retracted both announcements, blaming them on computer glitches and communications blunders. The latter one went nationwide.

“We apologize for the confusion caused by the false alarms,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters Saturday. He also revealed that Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told the ministry to be more careful in handling information.

According to the Defense Ministry, the first false alarm was sent from the Ground Self-Defense Force command to hundreds of GSDF terminals because of a computer error, including one involving a liaison officer in Akita Prefecture at 10:48 a.m. The officer then relayed the alarm to the prefectural government, which issued an alert to all the municipalities of in Akita, only to retract it 20 minutes later.

Then the Air Defense Command at 12:16 p.m. received notification from a radar installation in Chiba Prefecture that mistakenly interpreted unrelated signals as a North Korean rocket launch. The ADC passed on the information to the Central Command Center.

Separately, the ADC also mistakenly thought the U.S. Shared Early Warning missile-firing signal had gone off, prompting the government to release a nationwide alert.

As a result, at least 33 municipalities actually issued a warning to residents through such means as wireless disaster networks. All the alerts were soon retracted, officials said.

The slipup was realized when the ADC checked with the Aegis destroyers on station to monitor the launch. The government quickly revealed it was a false alarm, but only after NHK issued the alert, as did other media outlets, including those in South Korea.

The false alarm triggered a panic among reporters and officials at the Defense Ministry, with some looking out the window to check if the PAC-3 interceptor battery was being activated to target the rocket.

“It is very regrettable that such incorrect information was released,” the government said later in a statement. A Defense Ministry official said it was unclear what the Chiba radar picked up, but the error could have been avoided if the ministry had verified whether the U.S. had announced the launch.