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North Korean missile launch sparks evacuation confusion in Japan

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The launch by North Korea of what could be a new type of ballistic missile on Thursday morning caused fear and confusion in Japan after a government-run alert system warned residents that the projectile could fall on or close to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The emergency broadcasting system – J-Alert – told millions of people in Hokkaido to take immediate cover after the North test-fired what appeared to be a long-range missile.

The system issued the evacuation warning just before 8am local time, but lifted it soon after, saying it had “erroneously” predicted that the missile would fall near the island.\

But Japan’s government later said the emergency evacuation warning it issued and later retracted was appropriate and had not been made in error.

“We did not correct the information issued by J-Alert,” the chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, told a news conference.

South Korea’s military believes it was a new type of ballistic missile, possibly using solid fuel, a defence official said, requesting anonymity because of office rules.

If the launch involved a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it would be the North’s first test of such a weapon. Liquid fuel must be injected before the weapon is launched, but it is harder to detect launches of solid-propellant weapons in advance because the fuel is already loaded inside. North Korea’s previous ICBM tests all involved liquid-fuelled weapons.

Matsuno said the North Korean missile had disappeared from Japan’s radar immediately after detection, adding that further analysis had found that there was no possibility of it landing in Japan’s territory, prompting authorities to lift the evacuation warning.

“The J-Alert warning was issued to inform citizens of the danger of a falling missile to prioritise citizens’ safety,” Matsuno said.

There have been problems with J-Alert before. In October, an evacuation warning was issued when a missile flew over Japan, but it came so late most people were not aware of it until the projectile had fallen into the Pacific. A month later, a warning was erroneously issued saying a missile had overflown Japan.

On Thursday, a student told public broadcaster NHK that the alert had caused momentary alarm at a train station in Hokkaido. “For a second in the train there was panic, but a station worker told us to calm down, and people did,” said the man, whom NHK did not name.

The White House said it “strongly condemns” the missile test. “The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions and instead choose diplomatic engagement,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

Japan’s coast guard said the projectile had fallen in the sea east of North Korea. The defence minister, Yasukazu Hamada, told reporters the missile had not fallen within Japan’s territory or exclusive economic zone.

Earlier, residents of Hokkaido had been ordered to “evacuate immediately” and seek shelter in a building or underground, warning the missile was expected to land around 8am.

Local government officials in Hokkaido later said there was “no possibility” of the missile hitting the island.

Japan issued a similar evacuation order in October last year, when a North Korean intermediate-range missile flew over Japan in a launch that demonstrated the potential to reach the US Pacific territory of Guam.

Japanese authorities alerted residents in its northeastern regions to seek shelter and halted trains, although no damage was reported before the weapon landed in the Pacific.

Thursday’s false alarm will have done little to calm nerves in Hokkaido, where residents were first told to seek shelter after a missile launch in 2017.

Public broadcaster NHK said train services on the island had been briefly halted on Thursday morning, but resumed as soon as the warning was withdrawn.

The launch came days after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, called for a strengthening of the country’s war deterrence in a “more practical and offensive manner” to counter US “aggression.”

The North has stepped up weapons tests and ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks, apparently in response to joint military exercises involving US and South Korean forces that the regime in Pyongyang says are rehearsals for an invasion of its territory. Washington and Seoul insist that the drills are purely defensive.

“Pyongyang’s provocations continue past its protest of US-South Korea defence exercises because Kim Jong-un hasn’t finished demonstrating his nuclear delivery capabilities yet,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said, adding that the North’s recent failure to maintain daily communications with the South via a cross-border hotline “increases the risk of unintended escalation”.

Shortly before Japan issued its alert on Thursday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that North Korea had fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile at 7.23 am from near Pyongyang.

The South Korean military said it was on high alert and maintaining readiness posture in close coordination with the US.

Thursday’s missile launch took place against a backdrop of deteriorating ties between the two Koreas.

South Korea this week accused the North of being “irresponsible” after Pyongyang cut hotline contact with Seoul.

North Korea has not answered the twice-daily calls, made through a military hotline and an inter-Korean liaison channel, for several days, South Korea’s unification minister, Kwon Young-se, told reporters.

The links were cut a day after Seoul accused Pyongyang of continued unauthorised use of a joint industrial complex in the North Korean city of Kaesong.

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