Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.05.08

"Satellite" Launch Failure and Japan

"Satellite" (or alternatively "missile") launch by North Korea on April 13 resulted in failure.

I generally agree with, except for minor details, comments such as that North Korea should not have carried out this launch immediately after it had secured U.S. food aid and had agreed to stop uranium enrichment and missile launches; the launch failure also revealed that North Korea's technology is not yet mature and sophisticated enough, that the failure was a blot on the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth.

I do have some criticism in regard to Japan's response, however. First, the Japanese government was overly cautious in announcing that the launch had taken place that its announcement was approximately 40 minutes late. The Japanese government was so cautious because it had made wrong announcements in the past. The Japanese government can make emergency announcement on television, as well as on the emergency information network system (Em-net) and national alert system (J-ALERT), both of which had made mistaken announcements before.

The government and the Ministry of Defense appeared intent not to repeat these past mistakes, but trying to confirm such an event requires time and the press corps would be pressing the government for a statement in the meantime. It is reported that there was an uproar in the public affairs section of the Ministry of Defense. Releasing unconfirmed information would also be strongly criticized, however, which is well understood by those who know how the press works.

Then what should have been done? In that case, you have to release information with the caveat that it is unconfirmed. This causes less damage than delaying the release of information, which is fatal.

Top echelon decision makers have to make judgment as to when and what kind of information should be released. Those in the lower ranks tend to be more focused on accuracy. There is no excuse for the top echelon of the government and the Ministry of Defense who did not make an appropriate decision. According to the chief cabinet secretary, they will review information sharing but they should feel responsible.

Second, the government's way of releasing the information was problematic, and this problem should not be overlooked. The root of the problem is the coexistence of two systems: Em-net and J-ALERT. The former is administered by the Cabinet Office and the latter by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, and there are significant differences in the technical systems requirements and participation fees. It is hard to comprehend why the two systems have not been unified.

Leaving that aside, the fact is that two systems exist side by side, and some cities, towns, and villages in Japan have joined either system, both, or none, which has resulted in a very complex situation. However, the government has the obligation to immediately transmit necessary information to every city, town, and village. This time, Em-net transmitted the information (though unconfirmed) at 8:03, while J-ALERT did not transmit any warning.

The role of J-ALERT, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, is to transmit information about earthquakes and tsunami, as well as ballistic missiles. J-ALERT's official reason for not transmitting any warning this time was that the Cabinet Office did not provide the information. That then begs the question, who decided to give information to Em-net but not J-ALERT? It is inexcusable that they gave information to only one system. This was really poor risk management.

Third, as for the North Korean launch itself, it is rather questionable whether that even warranted the stationing of PAC3, the anti-ballistic missile defense system.

First, our anti-ballistic missile defense system should be mobilized only in the case of national emergency. It is not something to be used for the possibility of North Korea's purported "satellite" rocket straying from its trajectory or exploding mid-course, showering debris.

Second, if Japan was really afraid that the accident might cause real damage, then the government should have explained that danger scientifically through modeling, such as is done when planes crash (comparing that to the danger of a pedestrian getting into a car accident.)

Third, the danger to Japan and its citizens would have been different depending on location. So the danger should have been indicated not only for the Ishigaki Islands which are closest to the trajectory, but also the capital where PAC3 was also deployed.

Fourth, the government's explanation for "a measure of precaution" was hard to comprehend when the forecast was "normally, it would not fall in the Japanese territory." The government may have expected getting credit for erring on the side of caution in regard to taking precautionary safety measures, but whether it is for auto accidents, plane accidents, or naval accidents, they should be dealt with in accordance to the actual scale of the danger.

Fifth, the highest capability system, the PAC 3, of which the Japanese Self Defense Forces are proud, should be deployed only when it is needed for real defense measures. Casual deployment, even if it is at the preparation stage, will reveal certain capabilities to enemies, and thus will enable such enemies to prepare counter-measures.

Last, I have composed this list of questions above only because I expect that, regrettably, North Korea will test launch "satellites" in the future, and I do not want to experience such a Japanese government response again.