On the 27th of December at 12:22am local time, the Japanese broadcaster NHK mistakenly ran a newsflash on their website and news app reporting that a missile had launched from North Korea and had landed 2000km off the coast of Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido.
The following day, a siren blared out from a United States military base in South Korea resulting in brief panic before it was switched off, reportedly an accident whilst the operators were trying to play a bugle sound.
Back in 2018 on January 13th, an alert was sent out to residents of Hawaii reporting that a missile had launched from North Korea. The alert instructed people to seek shelter immediately as the missile was inbound to the US state.
Aside from the mass panic these events have the potential to occur, there are even more serious reasons why mistakes are too risky to continue making. The main reason:
Mass confusion heightens the risk of mistakes being made.
The NHK report was retracted after 20 minutes and was not aired on TV
As we seemingly enter a period of increasing tension between the DPRK and the United States, there is a risk that both sides will become more sensitive to reports of attack. The more credible the threat becomes, the more likely it is to be taken seriously. If one of these false reports triggers a retaliatory strike against the DPRK by the US or one of its allies, then the consequences are far-reaching and even, depending on the circumstances, have the potential to spiral into another all-out conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Take for example, this theoretical timeline:
A false report is sent out reporting an inbound missile from Korea to Hawaii. Tensions have heightened once again and so this report isn’t outside the realm of possibility. In the fog of war, it is reported back up the chain of command that a missile has been launched at Hawaii and with limited time available and no other information suggesting the report is false, a green light is given to retaliate.
Any strike on the DPRK, nuclear or otherwise, is very likely to result in an aggressive response as Pyongyang either attempts a show of force or believes that a conflict has broken out. South Korea, Japan and other bases will be targeted first along with other US military bases in the region and the risk of a war on the peninsula becomes a very real possibility.
The alert sent to Hawaii residents in 2018
While the above suggestion is very unlikely, it is not impossible. As tensions increase between Washington and Pyongyang and the threat of a return to nuclear and missile testing becomes increasingly real; the risk of news agencies and warning system operators being too ‘trigger happy’ or even just careless is a risk which the international community, increasingly, cannot take.
Neither side may intend to strike the other, but confusion and mass panic bring with them the risk of unintentional war.