South Korea’s capital woke to the sound of air raid sirens and a “wartime alert” to prepare to potentially evacuate on Wednesday after North Korea claimed to have fired a space launch vehicle towards the south.
An hour later, there were multiple reports in South Korea and Japan that the launch may have failed. But the evacuation alert, which was sent out to Seoul residents by text message at 6.32am along with a high-pitched alarm, triggered loudspeaker warnings across the city of 10 million.
It was recalled some 21 minutes later as an “error” and the military confirmed there would be no impact on the city.
The Japanese government also briefly issued an emergency warning over its J-Alert broadcasting system for residents of the southern prefecture of Okinawa, saying a missile had been launched from North Korea. It later confirmed the missile did not fly over Japanese territory and lifted the alert.
The alarms followed outrage in Seoul and Tokyo earlier this week after Pyongyang unveiled a plan to launch its first military spy satellite into orbit. The United States also condemned the move as a violation of UN security council resolutions that ban the country from using ballistic technology.
Analysts warn a military satellite would enhance North Korea’s surveillance capability and improve its ability to strike targets in the event of war, playing a crucial role in the event of a nuclear pre-emptive strike.
The development of military reconnaissance technology has long been one of the North’s stated defence goals. In a statement on state media on Tuesday, Pyongyang’s Central Military Commission indicated the planned launch was a response to ongoing joint US-South Korean military drills.
It said the satellite would allow the North to monitor “military acts of the enemy in real time”.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said they were analysing the situation. The presidential National Security Council was also set to convene to discuss the launch.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the launch took place after Pyongyang accused Seoul and Washington of “raising tensions with scaled-up live fire exercises” and amid its concerns about warming ties between South Korea and Japan.
“Whether or not North Korea’s current satellite mission is a success, Pyongyang can be expected to issue political propaganda about its space capabilities as well as diplomatic rhetoric aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo,” he said.
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