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Seoul mayor says evacuation alert 'not issued in error'

Blame game intensifies as evacuation alert over NK satellite launch leaves Seoul in chaos

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : May 31, 2023 - 17:01

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Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a press briefing at Seoul City Hall on Wednesday. (Yonhap) Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a press briefing at Seoul City Hall on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said the warning alarm sent out by the city government early Wednesday morning telling people to evacuate to the nearest shelter following North Korea's launch of a projectile was "not an error," amid the intensifying blame game between the central government and the municipality with the former criticizing the latter for overreacting and throwing its residents into chaos.

In an emergency press conference, Oh admitted that Seoul had "overreacted" to the launch of the projectile, which did not fly over the city, but said that the municipal government did not send out the emergency alert message "erroneously" and that it was intended to urge people to prepare to evacuate.

Wednesday's warning alarm was the first of its kind issued by the Seoul city government since the Korean War ceasefire in 1953.

"The warning alarm was set off to take immediate action and ensure the safety of some 10 million Seoulites because, unlike in the past when the North's projectiles flew eastward, (Wednesday's) object flew towards the south," said the conservative mayor.

"There is no compromise on safety, and our principle is to act beyond (what may be necessary)," he said.

Oh spoke shortly after the presidential office blamed Seoul city for having "overreacted." However, an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea also said North Korea's projectile "flew over the Yellow Sea, and (its trajectory) had nothing to do with Seoul or the neighboring areas."

The Seoul mayor defended the decision, saying it acted upon the Minister of Interior and Safety's notification that the central government had issued a warning alarm on islands near South Korea's border with North Korea, and had asked local governments to send out warnings autonomously.

Seoul's emergency response triggered a wave of criticism from political opponents.

Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who chairs the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, chastised Seoul for being "irresponsible and incompetent" in his statement Wednesday morning.

It was followed a statement by the Democratic Party of Korea at the Seoul City Council, saying, "If such alerts occur in error again, how will the Seoul city government guarantee the safety of Seoul citizens in the case of a real emergency?"

The progressive Jinbo Party called for an apology from President Yoon Suk Yeol, saying Seoul's response was the result of the lack of a centralized organization to handle such a matter.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told reporters Wednesday at the Government Complex Seoul that it is "very hard" to determine whether a specific measure in such an instance is excessive or not, while asking the government to cooperate and take necessary actions to improve the warning system.

The text message alert issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government at 6:41 a.m was preceded by a one-minute siren from public loudspeakers across the city and called on people to prepare to evacuate. A similar alert was issued for Baengnyeongdo, an island near the border of the two Koreas.

It was the first alert over North Korea's launch of a projectile on South Korean soil since November 2022 when an alert was issued for Ulleungdo in the East Sea.

The disaster alert, however, was followed by a correction 20 minutes later from the Interior Ministry. "Notice that the alert issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government was issued incorrectly," it said.

In 2017, autonomous local governments were given the authority to disseminate warnings in case of a disaster, along with the central government.

The warning in Seoul was lifted at 7:25 a.m. The Baengnyeongdo alert was lifted at around 8 a.m.