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Japanese J-Alert system issues false warnings over North Korean missiles

Amid North Korea’s increased missile testing, the Japanese government is facing the challenge of how to effectively use J-Alert system emergency warning system to notify people of possible danger, with recent false information leading to criticism.

Japan said it will reassess J-Alert system after the false warnings issued by it over North Korean missiles.

J-Alert emergency warnings issued Thursday morning indicated that a missile launched by North Korea had passed over the Japanese archipelago and headed into the Pacific Ocean, but the government later explained that the projectile had actually disappeared from radar over the Sea of Japan.

Residents in the affected areas, who felt anxious when they heard sirens on the morning of a national holiday, said that the accuracy of the information should be improved.

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Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Friday the government will consider revamping the system.

“Related government ministries and agencies are jointly considering remedial measures,” Matsuno told a news conference.

Meanwhile, Matsuno stressed that there was no problem with how the government responded to the missile launch.

“In the midst of various information reaching us, we issued (warnings) through J-Alert as quickly as possible,” he said.

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The first J-alert warning of the day was sent out to residents of Miyagi, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures on Thursday at 7:50 a.m. “A missile has been launched. Please evacuate inside buildings or underground,” it read.

The warning prompted disaster prevention officials of the three prefectures to gather for emergency meetings.

The Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku Shinkansen trains were temporarily suspended for safety checks, but as schools and some other facilities were closed because of the national holiday, the disturbance experienced by the public was limited.

“Mistakes happen, but I hope they will investigate the causes so that there won’t be any next time,” a 76-year-old woman from the city of Niigata said.

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After another J-Alert warning was issued at 8 a.m., reporting that the missile had flown over the archipelago, a government official said a news conference would be held 20 minutes later, but it was postponed, indicating confusion within the government.

Then just before 9 a.m., Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada spoke to reporters to correct the information, saying, “It was confirmed that (the object) disappeared over the Sea of Japan.”

The National Security Council was unable to reach a conclusion on why the supposedly detected object had actually disappeared en route.

“We are not sure,” said a government official, appearing puzzled. “It could be that two missiles were fired, or it could be that a missile separated in the middle of its flight.”

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The J-Alert system, which began operations in 2007, is designed to send out messages in times of national emergencies such as earthquakes, terrorist attacks and certain missile launches.

Municipalities receive warnings through satellites and administrative radio networks, and then notify residents through sirens and community FM radios. People also get alerts from mobile phone carriers.

This was the sixth instance of J-Alerts being triggered by missile launches.

When North Korea launched a missile on Oct. 4, a J-Alert warning was mistakenly sent out to the islands of Tokyo, leading Matsuno to apologize.

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This time, the system again included information that was different from what was happening.

A source at the Prime Minister’s Office said, “If this kind of thing continues, it will turn into a ‘cry wolf’ situation.”

Tsunenaga Oizumi, professor of crisis management at Aomori Chuo Gakuin University, said, “If a J-Alert is issued and no crisis actually occurs, the public will become accustomed to them and may not evacuate.

“As international tensions rise, the government needs to examine the issues and improve the quality of information,” he said.

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