It's a bit like the story of the little boy who cried wolf. Seoul panicked Wednesday after sending an evacuation order to the city following the launch of a North Korean rocket. In the end, it was a false alarm that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the inhabitants. "Now, when a real alarm goes off, no one will believe it," a father told AFP. Back on this bungling of the authorities in a country officially at war with North Korea.

An unclear evacuation order

"Citizens, prepare to evacuate and allow children and the elderly to evacuate first." This is the disturbing message, accompanied by a shrill ring, that all the mobile phones of the people of Seoul received at 6:41 a.m.

The message did not specify why this alert was being sent or where citizens were supposed to go. Seoul has long had a network of underground shelters, but in living memory, they have never been used in an actual emergency. South Korea's largest internet portal, Naver, has fallen into disarray due to excess traffic generated by the alert, the company told AFP. The incident caused fear.

A false alarm

"We inform you that the alarm sent at 6:41 a.m. was issued incorrectly," said a second alert sent about twenty minutes later. The first warning came after North Korea launched a rocket carrying a spy satellite, which crashed in the Yellow Sea due to a technical glitch. But the South Korean military said the projectile never threatened Seoul and did not even pass over the region.

"It was a space launch over the sea," tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project (EANP) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "It's like Japan sounds the alarm and asks everyone to go to the shelters every time South Korea does a space launch," he said.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon defended himself by saying his administration "deemed immediate action necessary" after the launch. "It may have been an overreaction, but there is no compromise when it comes to security," he told a news conference, while promising to review the city's alert system to prevent further confusion.

Residents not happy

Many Seoul residents expressed their anger on social media, with some even calling on the mayor to resign. "I took my two young children to an underground car park as I had been advised, I was in a state of shock," a 37-year-old father told AFP. As for the second message canceling the alert, it left him "speechless and furious."

왜 대피해야하는지 어디로 대피해야하는지 경계경보가 뭔지 아무것도 안 알려주는게.. ᄏᄏᄏᄏ 진짜 전쟁나면 그냥 죽겠구나싶다

— 덕도 (@duckdo_1226) May 30, 2023

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"They didn't tell us why we had to evacuate, or where we needed to go," one Twitter user complained @duckdo_1226. "If a real war breaks out, I think I'll end up getting killed." Another Seoul resident, @pedestrian_1234, said he panicked: "I almost fainted, because the alert text told us to evacuate without giving any really necessary information." "There was a voice ad outside that I couldn't even hear. My hands were shaking," he said.

A country technically at war

South Korea remains officially at war with North Korea, as the conflict between the two countries between 1950 and 1953 ended only with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Minseon Ku, a political scientist at Ohio State University, said Wednesday's blunder was a symptom of a chronic security problem in the South. "This snag is unfortunate because South Korea is technically at war right now, it highlights a potential flaw in civil security that could pose a real risk," she told AFP. It is hoped that this incident will serve as a reminder to local and national authorities that strong and reliable civil security trumps all other considerations. »

Ankit Panda, another US-based expert on Korea, said the mistake should lead to an investigation and revision of South Korea's operational procedures during its northern neighbor's frequent missile tests. "False alarms can be particularly dangerous in times of crisis, but they also undermine public trust in peacetime," he told AFP.

  • South Korea
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  • North Korea
  • Seoul