Seoul’s disaster alert fiasco raises major questions about crisis management system

Posted on : 2023-06-01 17:12 KST Modified on : 2023-06-01 17:12 KST
The emergency alert sent to the 10 million people of Seoul over a North Korean rocket launch has some people asking if anyone is at the wheel when it comes to crisis management
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters a strategy meeting at the Blue House on May 31. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters a strategy meeting at the Blue House on May 31. (presidential office pool photo)

“Alert issued to the Seoul region at 6:32 am today. All citizens prepare to evacuate.”

Seoul, home to 10 million people, was thrown into chaos and terror Wednesday morning. It all started with an emergency disaster warning sent by the Seoul metropolitan government at 6:41 am that day. The sirens rang out all across Seoul with a few minutes’ delay between them, and the sound of a broadcast that was difficult to make out boomed through official government speakers.

The public was confused, with no way of knowing why the alert had been sent or how or where they were supposed to evacuate to. People flocked online in an attempt to understand the situation, but the explosion in traffic left the sites unresponsive. It was truly a state of panic.

“If a real war broke out, I think we would all end up dead in all the panic”

“All it did was scare me witless. I was flabbergasted by this warning message that had no specific details or instructions,” said Song Eun-gyeong, 57, a resident of Seoul’s Gwangjin District. “If a real war broke out, I think we would all end up dead in all the panic.”

An emergency message issued by the Japanese government at 6:30 am was shared across Korean social media and online communities. “It appears a missile has been launched by North Korea. Take shelter indoors or underground,” it read. Posts pointing out the inadequacy of Seoul’s message went near-viral.

Displays at an electronics store in Seoul’s Yongsan District show a news broadcast about North Korea’s rocket launch on May 31. (Yonhap)
Displays at an electronics store in Seoul’s Yongsan District show a news broadcast about North Korea’s rocket launch on May 31. (Yonhap)

Twenty-two minutes later, at 7:03 am, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS) informed the public that the alert sent by Seoul had been sent by mistake, but it was only at 7:25 am that Seoul itself issued the all-clear through another emergency message. This was an assertion that the earlier alert had not been sent in error.

The judgment and response of the Seoul metropolitan government as the municipal body in charge had been wildly out of step with the MOIS as the government agency responsible for responding to emergencies and disasters. This “text message disaster” in the early morning revealed the disorder in Korea’s crisis management system.

Korea knew the rocket launch was coming, but still its preparations were inadequate

But the fact that the confusion Wednesday would not have happened if the local government and the central government’s security and disaster response offices had appropriately shared information and reviewed response guidelines in connection with the North Korean rocket launch suggests that not only the city of Seoul but also the central government may be forced to assume responsibility.

With North Korea having announced its plans for a military satellite launch several days ahead of time, and with South Korean and US military authorities using their intelligence assets to monitor North Korean activities in real time from the launch preparation stages, the situation has several aspects that raise questions about how much the different responses by the central government and city can be attributed to the mere misjudgment of a local government disaster response official.

Indeed, the message sent by the city after North Korea’s satellite rocket launch raises questions about how much the central and local governments were sharing information on the crisis.

Not only did the city’s alert announcement message come 12 minutes after the actual launch time (based on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s announcement), but it also did not contain a single mention of the reason for the alert.

Alert sent after rocket passed through air 250 kilometers away from Seoul

Additionally, it is difficult to understand why the city issued an alert in the first place when the rocket was detected as having passed over the waters west of Baengnyeong Island toward the East China Sea — at a significant distance away from Seoul and its metropolitan area.

The emergency disaster message sent by the city came after the North Korean rocket had traveled over the West Sea around 250 km west of Seoul. This suggests the city either did not receive or chose to disregard information from the central government on the vehicle’s trajectory.

Mayor Oh Se-hoon of Seoul leaves a briefing on the city’s text message alert sent to residents about the North Korean rocket launch on May 31. (Yonhap)
Mayor Oh Se-hoon of Seoul leaves a briefing on the city’s text message alert sent to residents about the North Korean rocket launch on May 31. (Yonhap)

In the event of a North Korean launch vehicle (or missile) launch, the Air Force operational headquarters is capable of detecting it within one minute and calculating its speed and anticipated flight path and point of impact, which it reports to the armed forces and government agencies more or less in real time via a dedicated communications network.

The MOIS central alert control center subsequently combines the received information, which it transmits all at once to alert control stations in the various cities and provinces of South Korea.

The mistaken alert message from the city of Seoul showed either that a link in this chain of information was broken or that the system itself was not functioning efficiently.

By Park Da-hae, staff reporter; Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter; Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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