11 July 2024

(AFP) – When a North Korean missile triggered an air raid siren warning locals on South Korea’s island of Ulleungdo to seek shelter, no one — including the deputy mayor — knew what to do.

About 130 kilometres (80 miles) off South Korea’s east coast, Ulleungdo, population 9,000, is a picture-perfect destination of green rocky outcrops and brilliant blue water, popular with domestic tourists.

But on Wednesday, Pyongyang fired off a volley of more than 20 missiles, including one which crossed the de facto maritime border and appeared to be on a direct course for Ulleungdo.

“Ulleungdo has always been thought of as a very secure place — something like this has never happened here before,” Kim Kyu-youl, deputy mayor of Ulleung County, told AFP.

The missile eventually splashed down 167 kilometres from the island — south of the boundary and close to South Korean waters, in what Seoul described as “effectively a territorial invasion”.

Seoul’s military said it was the “first time since the peninsula was divided” at the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953 that a North Korean missile had landed so close to the South’s waters.

The missile triggered Ulleungdo’s automated air raid alert system — which has not been activated in living memory, residents told AFP.

When Kim and his team heard the alert they had no idea what it meant as there are many different sirens, with each corresponding to a specific disaster scenario.

“In the heat of the moment it was difficult to understand these differences — especially since we also thought it could have been activated in error,” he said.

They then received a message from the interior ministry alerting them to the missile, at which point “we decided to take measures to ensure the safety of our citizens”.

Protocol says he and his team should have immediately gone into shelters along with other residents, but people were so confused they did not do so.

Instead they sent text messages as warnings and government employees wandered the streets urging residents to find shelter.

“I admit our response was not up to the standards our people expect,” he told AFP, saying they were planning how to improve.

“We are preparing more shelters” to add to eight air raid shelters currently available, he added.

“The shelters we have at the moment are concrete underground facilities, but this situation reminded us that these may be insufficient to address a greater threat.”

– ‘Shocked and frightened’ –

When 52-year-old shopkeeper Chae Young-sim heard the siren, she wondered if it was some kind of memorial for 156 people killed in a Halloween crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon district on Saturday.

“I thought the alarm was related to the Itaewon tragedy, some sort of national memorial service or something,” she told AFP.

Locals gathered at the island’s main port in confusion.

“We learned through the news on TV that North Korea had fired a missile towards our island,” she said.

“We were shocked and frightened, as something like this had never happened before. We didn’t know where to take refuge.”

Deputy mayor Kim and his team eventually contacted these people via text message to explain “but by then we knew the missile had landed quite far from here”, Chae said.

Most people were clueless about the proper course of action, said Wie Jeong-ae, 46, a manager at the passenger terminal.

“We only found out where to flee through text messages and chatrooms,” Wie said.

“There are no bunkers or proper refuges on Ulleungdo — the places used for evacuation are tunnels and underground facilities” built in the 1960s and 70s, she added.

“Most of us didn’t even know these existed, but we found out that day.”

Elderly people who remembered the shelters being constructed told younger generations where to go.

“We all felt very flustered,” Wie said.