TOKYO - The government of Japan did not expect North Korea's ballistic missile to explode before it reached an area where it would be detectable by Self-Defense Force radars, and this unexpected situation led to the government's delay in announcing the missile launch failure to the public.
The government was on high alert for the launch of the missile, which North Korea claimed was a rocket carrying a satellite, but the delay of the announcement has revealed a weakness in the government's preparations for emergencies.
On Friday morning, about 50 senior SDF officials, including Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of the SDF Joint Staff, were staring at a large monitor placed in the Central Command Post located on the third basement floor of the Defense Ministry.
At 7:40 a.m. an officer watching a computer terminal that receives information from a U.S. early-warning satellite cried out, "Information received from SEW (satellite early warning)!"
The satellite, which had been monitoring the missile launch at an altitude of about 36,000 kilometers (22,370 miles), detected heat from the missile about a minute after it was launched from the Tongchang-ri base in northwestern North Korea. Soon, the large monitor began showing traces of the missile detected by one of the two U.S. Aegis destroyers on alert in the Yellow Sea west of South Korea.
The ballistic missile began gaining altitude, reaching its maximum height of about 100 kilometers (62 miles) after one minute. Then the missile rapidly began its descent. The missile's trajectory on the monitor, which was supposed to move toward Okinawa Prefecture, showed that it dropped in waters west of South Korea.
The officials waited for the SDF's ground-based radars and Aegis destroyers deployed in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea to detect the missile. In the end, however, they did not receive any information from either source. Due to the roundness of the Earth, radars from Japan were unable to detect low-altitude areas around the launch site, which were below the horizon. "This fact shows that the missile did not reach the height (detectable by Japanese radars)," a Defense Ministry official said.
During the time Japanese officials spent waiting for confirmation, U.S. and South Korean media had already begun reporting that North Korea launched the missile, citing official sources. About 30 minutes after the launch, South Korea's National Defense Ministry officially announced that North Korea had "launched a long-range ballistic missile."
The government received inquiries, including some from Okinawa Prefecture, asking for information on the missile launch from the government.
However, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka was only able to announce the missile launch at 8:23 a.m., 43 minutes after the Defense Ministry received the first information about the missile launch.
Why did it take so long for the government to make its announcement?
According to sources, the government's plan was to announce the missile launch only after confirming information from the U.S. military with SDF radars.
The government was concerned about a bitter experience in April 2009 when North Korea launched a ballistic missile. At that time, the Defense Ministry mistakenly announced North Korea had launched the missile without sufficiently confirming a "trajectory of something" detected by a ground-based radar. The missile was actually launched the next day.
This time, therefore, the government decided to issue a quick report on the missile launch only after obtaining both the U.S. and SDF information. Officials did not expect the missile to drop before Japanese radars could detect it.
"We received all the U.S. information we had asked for," a senior Defense Ministry official said.
However, the government failed to promptly disclose the information from the United States to the public, arousing deep distrust from Okinawa Prefecture and institutions concerned about the missile launch.