Asia-Pacific

Winter Olympics: Panic as emergency alert confuses Games visitors in South Korea

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony on February 9, 2018. Source: AAP

A text message sent to thousands of mobile phones in the villages of Pyeongchang and Bokwang sent panic across the athletes' village. SBS News reporter Kirsty Johansen explains.

SBS News reporter Kirsty Johansen is in South Korea for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games from February 9 to February 25. 

It was just after 5am and I was in a deep sleep, after getting home late from covering the first joint Korean ice hockey game in the coastal city of Gangneung, when I was woken up by blaring emergency sirens.

I took a moment to realise where I was before realising the sound was coming from my phone.

An emergency alert text message was displayed on my home screen, but it was written in Korean.

For the past year I have been covering the tension and nuclear threats between North Korea and the US, so the thought of a missile launch during the Winter Olympics was always in the back of my mind.

The text message also comes only a month after residents and tourists in Hawaii had been alerted about a false ballistic missile threat.

With that in mind, I jumped out of bed and ran to wake up my cameraman.

I was trying to call my translator on repeat to find out what was going on.

At the same time I was trying to think about what clothes I could pick up considering it was a minimum of -14 degrees Celsius outside and where the closest bunker was situated.

After a really long day of work my translator took several phone calls to wake up. When I told him what had happened he frantically scrolled through his phone to find the same message.

To some relief he told me the message actually said: "[Korea Meteorological Administration] 02/11 05:03 North East side of Book-gu, City of Pohang, GyeongBook Province just had a 4.6 magnitude earthquake. Please be careful of aftershocks."

The tremor occurred more than 200 kilometres south of the Winter Olympics hub of Pyeongchang.

The text message was sent to thousands of phones in the villages of Pyeongchang and Bokwang and sent panic across the athletes' village because foreign visitors couldn’t read the warning.

At this stage, there are only reports of minor damage from the earthquake.

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