Holidaymaker in Japan startled by North Korea missile launch

Mount Rishiri in the far north coast of Hokkaido. Source: Shutterstock

WHAT would happen if a North Korean missile hit Japan? Until recently, this is not a question that many people may have seriously asked themselves.

But since February 2017, North Korea has fired 22 missiles as part of 15 tests, including missiles over Japan on the 29th of August and the 15th of September.

The latest, on September 15, was particularly worrisome, as analysts suspect that an intermediate-range ballistic missile, called a Hwasong – 12, was used. This was similar to the test on the 29th of August, but the most recent missile overflew Japan and had the furthest trajectory of any missile tested by Pyongyang to date.

This in turn caused the US defense secretary, James Mattis, to brand the North Korean test a “reckless act” that had “put millions of Japanese in duck and cover”.

Also involved in the “duck and cover” was Australian holidaymaker Stuart McDonald, who was visiting Rishiri on the island of Hokkaido at the time.

On September 15, the possibility of a direct hit on Japan became a reality for McDonald at around 7am local time, when the North Korean missile was fired, triggering emergency warnings.

“I was in the process of boarding the Wakkanai Ferry to Rishiri Island off the far north coast of Hokkaido when I received the first SMS message. It was in Japanese and I assumed it was a warning that I was running out of data credit on my phone,” McDonald told Asian Correspondent.

What he didn’t realize at the time was that he had just received the first of a series of emergency alerts issued by the Japanese government to warn citizens of a missile launch.

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Unfortunately, the messages are exclusively in Japanese, leaving foreign visitors to Japan out of the loop. In McDonald’s case, he had to turn to the Internet to find out what was happening,

“I absent-mindedly put some of the message through Google translate, which you need to do line by line, and saw words like ‘Presentation from the government’ and ‘Missile launch. North’ [sic].”

McDonald told Asian Correspondent that the message was quite concerning, and this was exacerbated when he received a second emergency alert: “Shortly after, my phone went off with another emergency alert, also in Japanese. Simultaneously every other passenger’s phone went off, I assume with the same alert.

“By then, via Twitter, I had established it was a test launch that passed over Hokkaido and landed in the sea. When I asked a weapons expert on Twitter how long it would have taken to reach Hokkaido, I was told around seven to eight minutes.”

Based on the emergency procedure witnessed by McDonald, the first phase of a North Korean missile strike on Japan would focus on the local response and warning systems. The second, which fortunately didn’t occur in this case, would involve wider global implications.

Even if a strike happened by accident, meaning that North Korea did not intend for a test missile to score a direct hit on Japanese soil, it would still be deemed an act of war.

This would then set off a global chain of events, as the US would almost certainly launch a counter-attack on North Korea. According to analysts speaking to The Independent, this would be triggered as Japan is a partner of Nato and any strike on Japan would be considered an attack on all the member countries of the Nato alliance.

In the interview with The Independent, Professor Anthony Glees, a security expert with the University of Buckingham, referenced the previous missile test over Japan on August 29 and elaborated on the dire implications of a missile either breaking up over Japan or misfiring and hitting the country directly.

“It’s extremely serious. Most wars happen by accident, not by design, and if these missiles had landed on Japan there would have undoubtedly been war this morning.”

The most chilling part of any declaration of all-out war, however, is that it would probably only come after serious loss of life around the impact zone of a North Korean missile.

This was unfortunately demonstrated in the messages that McDonald received, the first of which detailed the presence of a missile passing over Hokkaido and urged residents to seek shelter inside or underground. The second message warned of falling debris which could occur if the missile failed.

The reality of these warnings was not lost on McDonald, who spoke with local residents in Hokkaido regarding their contingency plans in the event of an emergency. One elderly couple he met detailed how they had planned to hide in a bath tub in their home and then pull a door over the top to protect themselves.

Having witnessed the chain of events firsthand however, McDonald noted just how quickly one would have to react if a North Korean missile hit Japan: “Realistically if you were in the impact area with just a few minutes to hide in the bathtub, you would probably be dead,” he said.

In the case of the Hwasong – 12 missile, the possibility of casualties on the ground in Japan would certainly be high, even if experts are divided on its exact capabilities.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, the missile has a range of up to 5,500km and is apparently “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead”. Depending on the exact size of the warhead used, a direct hit on Japan could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens.

When a nuclear bomb lands, it causes shockwaves that change the air pressure and result in the crushing of buildings or objects. The strong winds that occur from the blast also contribute to the high death toll as people are hit by flying debris or falling buildings.

The impact of a North Korean nuclear bomb hitting Japan may still be difficult to assess, but the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has some gruesome reading material related to a 100 kiloton nuclear weapon.

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Within a 3km radius, the bomb produces a radioactive fireball with temperatures that exceed the Sun. It also has the force of 100,000 tonnes of TNT which would kill everyone in the vicinity immediately. Within a 5km radius from the point of impact, most people would die from blast-related injuries, asphyxiation, or radiation sickness which would occur over the coming weeks.

Despite his scare on Hokkaido, McDonald continued with his plans to scale Mount Rishiri the next day, and spent the rest of his time in the area enjoying the scenery and soaking in the local onsen. Having had several days to reflect on the incident however, he admitted that the possibility of a North Korean missile strike on Japan now feels all too real.

“What I find really horrifying is that if it really kicks off there, many of the people I met over the last five days could die.”

This story first appeared on our sister site, Asian Correspondent