With the world focused on the Middle East, North Korea has restarted a nuclear reactor capable of yielding weapons-grade plutonium.
According to fresh satellite imagery analysed at Johns Hopkins University, steam can be seen rising from the Yongbyon nuclear complex in the northwest of the hermetic state, indicating that the turbines were once again turning.
"The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation," said specialists from the International Institute at the University.
Speaking to Reuters in anonymity, a Washington official said the amount of steam coming out of the complex would indicate that the reactor was being tested, however he said it was unlikely the Pyongyang was looking to bargain for concessions, adding that the North "wants to create a fait accompli and be accepted as a (nuclear) power and nuclear weapons state."
In April, Kim Jong-un announced that the reactor would be turned back on, part of an escalation in tensions that led to the closing of the border servicing the Kaesong industrial complex used by workers from both North and South Korea.
Kaesong was scheduled to reopen next week, as the threat of conflict between the two peninsula states seemingly receded over the past few months. However, Pyongyang’s move to once again push ahead with its nuclear weapons programme is likely to rekindle fears of conflict, causing disquiet in Seoul, Beijing and Washington, the latter currently embroiled in diplomatic efforts over Syria.
In a press conference on Wednesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, said: "We hope that all sides work hard at this to maintain regional peace and stability and long-term peace in Northeast Asia. This accords with the interests of all sides."
In recent years North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests, with detonations in 2006 and 2009, which drew international condemnation, and well as the more recent launch of a rocket in December, widely regarded as a trial of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile system.