1 dead, dozen injured as volcano erupts near Kusatsu ski resort in Japan

A volcano near a ski resort in eastern Japan erupted Tuesday morning, killing a Japanese defense force member taking part in training and injuring 11 others, including two people who were left in serious condition. The unexpected eruption of Mt. Moto-Shirane in Gunma Prefecture halted ski lift operations, leaving around 80 people, including tourists from Taiwan and Britain, temporarily stranded in a restaurant near the top of the mountain. A weather agency official said observational data had not indicated heightened volcanic activity, highlighting the difficulty of issuing disaster alerts in advance in Japan, which is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The 2,171-meter volcano had been dormant for the past 3,000 years, although another of the peaks comprising Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane erupted in 1983. Around 30 Ground Self-Defense Force troops of the 12th Brigade, well known for being sent to areas affected by natural disasters, were engaging in ski training in the area at the time. According to the GSDF and the Defense Ministry, a 49-year-old male GSDF member died and seven other troops were injured, including the two in serious condition. The troops were initially believed to have been hit by an avalanche, but Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said they appeared to have been pummeled by volcanic rock. Some people were also injured as volcanic rock shattered the glass of a gondola on the ski resort's aerial lift and smashed through the roof of the restaurant, local rescuers said. "I was scared to death," said a 71-year-old man from Tokyo, who was riding in the gondola, recalling how two stones smashed the windows. He said the lift was halted for about 30 minutes. A 52-year-old woman said she heard a bang when she was on a slope near the mountain peak. She crawled toward the gondola lift station as the mountain spewed cinders, and sheltered in the basement there for about an hour. "I thought I was going to die," she said. The government has not heard of additional casualties or missing people in addition to the twelve victims so far, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference in the afternoon. Video footage taken at the ski resort and uploaded on the internet showed black smoke and what appeared to be volcanic rock falling as well as snow sliding down the hill. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. said a power outage occurred near the ski resort. Following the eruption at 9:59 a.m., the Japan Meteorological Agency raised the volcanic alert status to 3, a level that restricts entry to the mountain, while warning large rocks could continue to rain down within a 2-kilometer radius of the eruption site. The eruption occurred about 2 km from a crater that the agency had been monitoring after assessing it was the most likely to erupt. Unable to confirm the situation with security cameras installed in the area, it took about an hour for the agency to release information that "an eruption seems to have occurred." Plume conditions remain unknown due to bad weather, but the agency said it is unlikely that ash deposits will reach the nearby Kusatsu hot spring resort and residential areas. The central government has set up a liaison office at the prime minister's office to gather information on the eruption. Japan has 111 active volcanoes, with the agency monitoring the activity of 50 including Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane. The eruption alert level for Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane was at one point raised to 2 on the five-level system in 2014. But the agency lowered it to 1 in June 2017, which only indicates the "potential" for increased activity. Mountain climbers are not required to take action at levels 1 and 2. In 2014, Mt. Ontake in central Japan also erupted unexpectedly, killing 58 people and leaving five missing in the nation's deadliest volcanic disaster.

13 hours ago | KYODO NEWS

North Korea suggests boycott of Winter Olympics in South Korea

North Korea indicated Tuesday it may not join next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, after a conservative group there burned a big picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the country's national flag. On Monday, a South Korean conservative organization held a protest rally against North Korea's participation in the Olympics, when a Pyongyang delegation arrived at Seoul central train station. "We cannot but take a serious consideration of our follow-up measures regarding the (Pyeongchang) Winter Olympics," the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said in a statement. Pyongyang also urged Seoul to swiftly implement steps to prevent the recurrence of such acts. "We will never tolerate hideous acts of the conservative hooligans who insulted the sacred dignity and symbol of the DPRK," the statement said, using the acronym of North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "If the north-south agreement and schedules for the DPRK's participation in the Olympics are cancelled...the blame will wholly rest with the conservative group and the south Korean authorities," the statement added. In a surprisingly conciliatory gesture to South Korea, North Korea recently announced plans to send 22 athletes as well as 24 coaches and officials to the Olympics that start Feb. 9. But North Korea has shown no signs of abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.

18 hours ago | KYODO NEWS