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Seoul residents alarmed by false alert

For half an hour early Wednesday morning, Seoulites got a sense of what life is like for their counterparts in Kyiv, Ukraine.

It started with a siren at 6:32 a.m. Many residents of the capital woke up surprised and some early birds stopped on their way to work. They turned on the TV or accessed the internet. There were no emergency news broadcasts and Naver was out of service due to heavy traffic.

At 6:41 a.m., nine minutes later, people received a mobile phone alert telling them to prepare to evacuate, prioritizing the elderly and children. There were no reasons given explaining the evacuation alert or instructions on where to seek refuge. Soon, broadcasters aired the news that North Korea fired what it claimed was a rocket carrying a satellite. Still, confusion continued as people did not know what to do.

At 7:03 a.m., the interior ministry retracted the alert, saying the metropolitan government sent it by mistake. At 7:25 a.m., City Hall officially canceled its alert. That meant the previous alert was not a false alarm.

It was a mess for 31 minutes, from the siren to the retraction of the alert.

"I thought a war finally broke out here, like in Ukraine," a housewife said on the evening news of one television network. "If it had, we all might have died." Who could refute her? Fortunately, what North Korea claimed to be a space launch vehicle ended up falling into the Yellow Sea after an abnormal flight, the military said. However, if the projectile had targeted Seoul, it could have reached here in two minutes, less than a quarter of the nine minutes.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon later apologized to citizens for the fuss. But he refused to acknowledge it was a false alarm, claiming it is better to err on the side of safety. Oh might want to blame the poor linkage starting from the military and the interior ministry. But he can hardly criticize others after throwing 10 million citizens into panic for half an hour. Oh must know many people still think the tragic crash in Itaewon last year was due to joint failures of the ministry and the city.

However, all responsibility comes down to the presidential office and the National Security Council. Pyongyang might have won more than it lost from the failure, watching the South's poor state of preparedness. President Yoon Suk Yeol reassured people about security, vowing to retaliate a hundred or a thousand times against any attacks from the North. Yet, perfect defense should precede strong counterattacks. People do not trust a government that talks the talk, but does not walk the walk. Yoon also must know the best security guarantee is letting people sleep in peace.

It was noteworthy that North Korea, besides the International Maritime Organization, informed Japan of the scheduled launch. One should not read too much into it as Japan coordinates navigation areas in this region. Or Pyongyang was driving a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo. However, the move came after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida uttered the possibility of a bilateral summit, and the North responded in kind.

Underneath the harsh rhetoric, Tokyo has had close talks with Beijing. It may take a similar approach with Pyongyang, leaving Seoul in the cold. The U.S., while rebuking the North, also said the diplomatic door was not closed.

Unfortunately, we see no signs of the Yoon administration preparing for a sudden detente in this part of the world. The North should have told Seoul first about its moves in a normal situation. Then, the government could ask the Chinese and Russian governments to dissuade Pyongyang. However, Beijing made clear Seoul should not seek any cooperation from it earlier in the week. Moscow may even fan Pyongyang. The only area two-facedness is allowed may be diplomacy. Yoon must hurry.

Despite the international community's urging, Pyongyang will retry the launch as soon as possible. Regrettably, there are no effective ways to stop it.

Should South Koreans just hope they can evacuate more effectively, then? After living a year with this "diplomatic" president, that is a sad but unavoidable reality.


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