At 6.02am on 29 August millions of Japanese were woken simultaneously to terrifying news: a North Korean missile was overhead.

Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A mass text message sent by the government urged people to take cover.

The warning: "Missile launch. Missile launch. A missile was fired from North Korea. Please evacuate to a sturdy building or basement".

For anyone on the missile’s flight path it was a rude and frightening awakening. Chris Broad was travelling in northern Japan when the alarms sounded in the street and his phone began buzzing with text alerts. Looking bleary eyed in a video posted to his Abroad in Japan blog he said: “I don’t know if it’s real or not but it’s not a nice way to wake up in the morning.”

One alert after another

Ten minutes later he received another text alert saying he was now directly beneath the flight line of the missile. “The emergency alert said the missile flew overhead ... so I had better look that up”

TV and radio stations interrupted normal programming to broadcast alerts. In the northern parts of the country sirens went off, while loudspeakers warned them they were under the path of a missile.

At 6.06am, four minutes after the first public warning, and eight minutes since its launch at 5.58am, the missile entered air space hundreds of kilometres over Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.

The government's Fire and Disaster Management Agency alerted citizens the missile had passed two minutes later.

The ballistic missile fell into the sea just over 100km east of Cape Erimo.

Image: Associated Press

In earthquake and tsunami-prone Japan, many people have become used to mass alert systems, but this latest ‘J-Alert’ was the most widespread since the system was launched in 2007.

The threat of North Korean missiles has been looming large over Japan since Kim Jong-un dramatically upped its nuclear testing programme. Following two long-range missile launches in July, the 15 member UN Security Council unanimously imposed sanctions on North Korea, but firing over mainland Japan signals a new level of provocation from Pyongyang.

Could the missile have been stopped?

Although it has a anti-missile defence capability, in reality Japan would be largely powerless faced with an unexpected attack. Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera said a decision was taken to make no attempt to shoot down the missile, as it was not aimed at a target in Japan. But if Japan had gone after the missile, its systems may have struggled to intercept it anyway.

As it passed over Hokkaido the missile was flying at an altitude of around 550 kilometres at a speed of 12,000kmh. Defence analyst Lance Gatling described any effort to destroy the missile as “a pretty low percentage shot” and added that Japan’s key missile defence assets would have to be in just the right right place at the right moment to take out a Hwasong-12 in full flight.

For the first time, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, admitted deliberately firing a missile across Japan. It had previously claimed previous projectiles were satellite launches. Earlier this month, it stated that it was considering firing on the US Pacific territory of Guam, where strategic bombers are based.

US President Trump has warned “all options are on the table” following the latest launch, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned North Korea’s “reckless action” as a “serious and grave threat” to his nation.

Missile safety drills

The timings of the latest launch suggest the Japanese would have just three minutes to get to safety had the missile been aimed at Japan itself.

School children take part in a drill based on a North Korean missile launch scenario
Image: Kyodo/via REUTERS

Several coastal towns on mainland Japan have been holding missile drills in response to the growing number of ballistics being launched over the sea between Japan and North Korea. However, many took to social media in the aftermath of the most recent launch to express their fear and feelings of helplessness and lack of preparation.