UN agency keeps watchful eye on likely nuclear test

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UN agency keeps watchful eye on likely nuclear test

In the midst of concerns over North Korea’s apparently imminent nuclear test, a UN agency is operating a monitoring system over an underground atomic explosion around the clock.

Thomas Mutzelburg, vice spokesman for the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (Ctbto), told Radio Free Asia yesterday that they are monitoring Pyongyang’s third nuclear test through their 337 observation posts worldwide. “We are monitoring North Korea 24 hours at the local observatories in the world,” the vice spokesman said. “We can immediately detect an atomic test as we did in 2006 and 2009 [when the regime conducted the first and the second tests].”

The spokesman said their observatories and laboratories are capable of detecting ground trembling and very low-frequency waves, and analyze chemicals leaking from the test site.

The Ctbto, monitoring any moves related to atomic military tests around the world, was established in 1996 to ban any kind of nuclear weapons tests in the world. North Korea hasn’t signed the nuclear-test-ban treaty yet.

Once the worldwide observatories detect an explosion, the news is transmitted to UN headquarters and its members within an hour, the vice spokesman said.

“As soon as we catch a sign of a nuclear test, all of the 182 UN members are automatically informed of it,” Mutzelburg said. “In the 2009 second nuclear test, the news was sent to all members within an hour and half.”

Experts say when a nuclear test occurs, most of the some-200 chemicals leaking from the underground test site diminish, but some radioactive chemicals such as xenon or krypton remain in the atmosphere, which can be the so-called “smoking gun.”

When North Korea carried out its first atomic test in 2006, Washington found xenon in air samples collected in the wind, confirming Pyongyang used plutonium fuel.

South Korea also has 35 observatories and 25 seismic detectors to monitor unusual earthquake activities triggered by a nuclear explosion in the North. In the 2009 second nuclear test, it took only 48 seconds for South Korean seismologists to detect the underground tremor.

By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]
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