SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In its annual report made available this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had detected new indications of the operation of North Korea's main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
The report based on satellite imagery said there have been indications since early July that a key reactor at the nuclear complex north of Pyongyang has been in operation.
In December 2018, the North suspended the operation of the 5 megawatt reactor, from which it obtained spent fuel rods to extract plutonium, a fissile material used to make nuclear bombs.
The report also said that the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon complex operated for approximately five months from mid-February.
The timeframe is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from the reactor, it added.
The UN nuclear watchdog recalled in the report that the continuation of the North's nuclear programme is a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning the communist state from pursuing nuclear arms and missile development.
Pyongyang's latest move seems intended to put pressure on the US to come closer to its terms in cutting a nuclear deal without conducting additional nuclear tests or test-firing more long-range ballistic missiles.
It has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing since late 2017.
It may seek to heighten the value of the Yongbyon complex as a bargaining chip when stalled nuclear negotiations with the US resume.
During his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February 2019, then US President Donald Trump rebuffed Mr Kim's offer to dismantle nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in return for lifting a significant part of US-led international sanctions on the impoverished country.
The North has since stayed away from denuclearisation talks with the US.
Mr Trump's successor Joe Biden's administration has repeatedly offered to hold talks with North Korea anywhere, any time and without preconditions.
But it also has made it clear that the sanctions on Pyongyang will not be eased until the regime takes substantial steps toward complete denuclearisation.
If the Biden administration shows no interest in its attempt to revive the old bargaining tactic - as expected by most observers - Pyongyang might seek to build up its nuclear arsenal by continuing to reactivate the Yongbyon complex.
What the latest IAEA report suggests is that the North is sticking to its ambition to be recognised as a nuclear-armed state while drawing concessions from the US to pull itself out of deepening economic difficulties.
It has also stirred up controversy here over the possibility of President Moon Jae-in's administration having hidden or ignored Pyongyang's renewed nuclear activities to push ahead with inter-Korean dialogue and assistance for the North.
The presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae hailed the North's agreement in late July to restore inter-Korean communication lines, which it had unilaterally severed last year, as a move to carry forward the peace process on the peninsula.
It emphasised the agreement came after Mr Moon exchanged a dozen personal letters with Mr Kim over the past months.
Subsequently, Mr Moon instructed military commanders to consider further reducing an annual summertime joint drill between South Korea and the US while the Unification Ministry permitted the shipment of materials by the private sector to the North.
Such moves came as the Moon administration was apparently aware of indications of the Yongbyon complex back in operation, given Seoul officials said after the IAEA report went public that they were closely monitoring the North's nuclear and missile activities in close cooperation with the US.
The reported reactivation of the North's nuclear facilities also harms the credibility of Mr Moon's repeated assurances in 2018, when he held three rounds of summits with Mr Kim, that the North Korean leader had a firm will to work toward denuclearisation.
Commenting on the IAEA's report Tuesday, a Cheong Wa Dae official said the reported escalation in the North's nuclear activities underlined the urgency of engaging with it.
On the same day, Unification Minister Lee In-young stressed the need to expand humanitarian aid to the North by being more flexible on the implementation of sanctions.
The US also seems to be refraining from responding sternly to Pyongyang's latest move, reiterating its commitment to seeking dialogue with the North on issues related to denuclearisation.
Seoul and Washington should react more resolutely and send a clear message that Pyongyang would have to pay a dear price for its repeated reactivation of nuclear sites.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.