False Alarm Sounded Saturday in Japan over North Korean Missile Launch

A false alarm was sounded in Japan Saturday when the government announced North Korea had carried out an expected rocket launch. Japan quickly rescinded the announcement but not before the report had been widely disseminated both in the country and internationally.

A jittery Japan went on high alert after Pyongyang announced that an anticipated launch from North Korea was imminent.

But the Japanese government's emergency network, headquartered at the Prime Minister's office, acted prematurely. It announced at 12:16 p.m. local time Saturday North Korea had fired the rocket. The report was immediately aired on national broadcast networks and local authorities activated their emergency responses in areas where it was feared debris from stages of the missile could fall.

International news agencies also disseminated the announcement.

Five minutes later an embarrassed Japanese government retracted the alert.

At a regional government emergency center in Niigata, officials repeatedly utter "mistake, mistake" to spread the word.  

Later in the day, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada apologized.

Hamada says he wants to make a heartfelt apology to the people of Japan for causing tremendous trouble to them. The defense minister says it is the fault of the Defense Ministry and Self Defense Forces due to a mistake in the transmission of information.  

Government officials pinpointed the error as originating at an Air Self-Defense Force radar station, in Chiba Prefecture, which had detected a "flying object" over the Sea of Japan.

Japanese media report, however, there was no indication of a launch from a U.S. early warning satellite system, which is to be used by Japan to verify such an event.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, the top government spokesman, also faced reporters to explain what happened.

Kawamura says he also wants to apologize for the confusion caused by the government's mistaken announcement of a missile launch. He adds that all alert systems remain in place for the anticipated launch - now not expected to occur before Sunday - and the government will strive to be accurate with further announcements.

North Korea, on Saturday, through its official media, announced all preparations had been completed at the launch site in Musudan-ri, in the north-eastern part of the country.

A television news announcer in Pyongyang says North Korea's launch of what it terms an experimental communications satellite would be sent into space "soon."

North Korea previously informed international aviation and shipping agencies that the launch would take place between April 4 and the 8.

The impending launch has caused anxiety for Japan, which along with the United States and South Korea, have called on North Korea not to proceed. Those governments say such a launch - which they believe will be a ballistic missile test - would violate a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The 2006 U.N. action demanded Pyongyang drop all development related to ballistic missiles.

In an unprecedented defensive posture, Japan has deployed Aegis-class destroyers to its northern coast and repositioned Patriot missile batteries in case it needs to shoot down any debris that threatens Japan. Some of the Patriot PAC-3 land-to-air missile systems have been placed in and around Tokyo, the capital. Others are in two northern prefectures expected to be below the flight path of the North Korean missile.

Japan says the launch endangers its security but has backed away from earlier threats to try to shoot down the missile. North Korea said any such action by Japan would mean war.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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