• Emergency Alerts For Foreigners Get Lost In Translation
(Photo: TBS)

South Korea's disaster mitigation efforts rely greatly on early response measures, and even more so in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

But what happens if potentially life-saving, information is only passed on to the Korean-speaking population, and fails to reach the country's 2 million foreign residents.

That's where the government's Emergency Ready app steps in, to give real-time up to date information on coronavirus outbreaks, earthquakes, flooding, and even toxic fine dust levels in English.

TBS has found, however, that for many, the texts can get lost in translation.

Ron Chang reports.


Joe McPherson said he was startled by an alert he received on August 5.

A siren sound blared from his smartphone accompanied by a message that warned him an earthquake had struck Seoul.

"466myeon earthquake has occurred in Seoul," the text read.

There were no other details about what magnitude the quake was or if he was in imminent danger.

He later discovered there was no earthquake.

"I found out it was the number of Seoul's coronavirus cases, which has nothing to do with [an earthquake], so I was shocked and the link that they gave to us was broken as well," McPherson told TBS.

This is just one example of the many mistranslations that have left foreigners confused since the inception of the Emergency Ready app in 2014.

Users of the app that TBS spoke to said it's common to get strange alerts about extreme weather, COVID-19 cases and a range of other disaster-related information missing key context.

Another alert issued on August 10 urged people to "be careful of your parents' safety during the Lunar New Year holiday."

The original message in Korea warned of a heatwave and encouraged citizens to check on the wellbeing of their parents living in rural areas.

Flower Warner, a resident of Korea for eight years, said she's seen her fair share of nonsensical alerts.

"I don't know who is translating them, if there's someone actually translating, or if it's like a bot that's sending the messages," Warner said.

She went on to explain her frustrations trying to decipher the mass texts she receives from the government.

"Some people say it's a useless app. Maybe one in 10 messages is actually helpful."

The Emergency Ready app is run by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

The ministry said it receives the alerts from local governments in Korean and inputs the information into a language translation software program that was expressly made for the app.

TBS spoke with an official of the ministry who made clear they do not rely on free translation services such as Google Translate or Papago, contrary to popular belief.

The official explained that once the emergency information is translated, it's passed on to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), where it undergoes a quick review before being sent out to millions of mobile phones.

The official acknowledged the "possibility of errors" when asked if the ministry knew foreigners were receiving confusing messages.

He said they had previously requested the KTO look into the matter.

TBS found that a team of just three people who work at the KTO's Information Desk are responsible for checking hundreds of emergency messages on any given day. Sometimes only one person may be handling the massive task.

The KTO did not deny that there have been mistakes, but it stressed that "reviewing the English text alerts is not the main job of our personnel."

An official from the agency clarified the Information Desk is principally in charge of answering calls and providing tourism information.

The official added, however, that they been hiring more employees, without elaborating whether that meant more people manning the help desk.

After TBS made inquiries to the government, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety released a statement on Friday recognizing problems regarding the alerts in English provided by the Emergency Ready app.

Although the ministry fell short of taking full responsibility, it admitted to flaws in their translation system and vowed to work with the KTO to improve the alert review process in order to provide foreigners clear and accurate information.

As of Tuesday, alerts issued via the Emergency Ready app, seen by TBS, not only made sense but were also easy to understand, and actually helpful.

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