Japanese authorities staged on Monday the first missile evacuation drill in the capital Tokyo in the event of a North Korean missile strike.
Volunteers took cover in subway stations and other underground spaces, while small groups of protesters scuffled with police as they demonstrated against what they criticized as a war game that fanned public fear.
While hope grows that North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea may help defuse tension in the region, Japan is escalating efforts to prepare its citizens for a possible war.
Tokyo believes the threat posed by Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is deepening.
“A missile from North Korea would arrive in less than 10 minutes and the first alert would come about three minutes after launch, which gives us only around five minutes to find shelter,” Hiroyuku Suenaga, a Japanese government official, told volunteers after the Tokyo exercise.
“I am not that worried about North Korea, if something happened that would be frightening,” said Hidenobu Kondo, one of the volunteer evacuees. However, the 50-year-old company employee said the drill would not be of much use in the event of real attack.
“If I was at work it might be easy to evacuate, but If I was outside somewhere it would be more difficult,” Kondo said.
Small Japanese towns and villages have conducted similar drills as North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs.
North Korea conducted its most recent and biggest nuclear bomb test in September and has tested dozens of ballistic missiles. The latest missile test in November reached an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and flew 950 km (590 miles), passing over Japan before splashing into waters in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Pyongyang says its weapons programs are a necessary defense against a possible US invasion.
Amid public concern over the possibility of more missile launches, Japanese public broadcaster NHK issued a false launch alarm urging people to take shelter six days ago. That came days after a similar false alert caused panic across Hawaii.
Japan’s defenses against a ballistic missile strike include Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan armed with interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries represent a last line of defense against warheads that can plunge to their targets at several kilometers per second.
Japan has also decided to buy two land-based Aegis batteries and cruise missiles that could strike North Korean missile sites.
In South Korea meanwhile, President Moon Jae-in said on Monday a thaw in relations between the two Koreas ahead of the Winter Olympics presented a “precious chance” for the Washington and Pyongyang to the North’s weapons programs.
The Olympics provided a “precious chance to open the door” for talks to resolve the nuclear issue and establish peace on the peninsula, he said at the presidential Blue House.
“But no one can be optimistic about how long the current mood for dialogue will last. We need wisdom and efforts to sustain the dialogue opportunities ... beyond the Olympics so that the inter-Korean talks will lead to talks between the United States and North Korea and other forms of dialogue”.
While a recent opinion poll showed most South Koreans welcomed the North’s participation in the Games, conservative opponents staged a small but noisy rally as a North Korean delegation inspected venues in Seoul for cultural events to be held on the sidelines of the Olympics.
South Korean police intervened when one group of protesters burned a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the steps of Seoul’s central train station where a delegation from the North had arrived.
Holding a sign saying “We’re opposed to Kim Jong Un’s Pyongyang Olympics!”, the protesters chanted that the North had “snatched” attention for the showpiece event from South Korea.
The North Korean delegation was led by Hyon Song-wol, a popular female singer, who smiled and waved to a crowd at the train station before the protest began.
“Seeing the citizens here welcoming us, I feel we will be able to successfully complete the concert”, Hyon was quoted as saying by a Seoul official, according to South Korean media.
Some specific Olympic plans, including marching under a united flag and forming a joint women’s ice hockey team, have proven controversial, with conservatives and younger South Koreans upset that an un-chastened North Korea is stealing the spotlight.
Moon’s administration was also under pressure over the plan to send athletes to a North Korean ski resort for joint training, which experts say risks giving Kim’s regime legitimacy and some much needed cash.
Moon’s approval rating has fallen to a four-month low at 66 percent, a poll showed on Monday, after a public backlash over the decision on a combined ice hockey team.