( Lat ) - The United States announced Tuesday that Macau will soon release $25 million in frozen North Korean funds, potentially breaking a deadlock in international efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear
The announcement, from the U.S. Treasury Department, was hailed as a welcome step forward by the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. ``Now we need to move on from this banking issue to the real purpose of our February agreement, which is to get on with denuclearization,'' he told Reuters during a visit to Seoul.
North Korea agreed Feb. 13 to close and seal its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days, a deadline coming up Saturday. But that pledge was conditional on a parallel U.S. promise to liberate the
funds in Macau within 30 days, a deadline that came and went as the Treasury Department, North Korea, the Macau Monetary Authority, the Bank of China and the Chinese Foreign Ministry haggled over who should get the money and under what conditions.
Despite the Treasury Department announcement, the haggling did not stop Tuesday. In a statement, the Macau Monetary Authority responded by saying only that it had ``noted'' the announcement from Washington. It made no promise to get the funds moving toward North Korea and suggested there was still work to do.
``The Monetary Authority of Macau will continue to coordinate all parties concerned in Macau to properly deal with this issue within the parameters of existing legislation,'' it said, refusing to explain further. ``Simultaneously, it expects all parties concerned to come up with appropriate and responsible arrangements respectively.''
However _ and whenever _ the frozen funds issue finally gets resolved, it seemed increasingly likely that the Saturday deadline for closing and sealing the Yongbyon reactor would not be met even if it were still technically possible. That opened the prospect of another round of diplomatic talks to settle on a fresh schedule, possibly setting a new deadline of 30 days from North Korea's reception of the blocked funds in keeping with the Feb. 13 sequence.
Victor Cha, the White House specialist on North Korea, discussed the dispute Tuesday in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, with Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, the Associated Press
reported. Cha was in North Korea accompanying Gov. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, who traveled there to seek the remains of U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War.
In the Feb. 13 agreement, closing the reactor was supposed to be the first step on a path toward full dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalized relations with the United States. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also was to be allowed back into North Korea to monitor the closure and participate in subsequent denuclearization steps, including an inventory of all the country's nuclear facilities, programs and weapons. North Korean authorities reiterated to Richardson that they were prepared to let the IAEA in as promised, but only after they received the frozen money.
Macau, a special administrative region of China, blocked the money, deposited in the tiny Banco Delta Asia, after the United States charged in 2005 that some of it came from illegal activities, including money laundering and injecting counterfeit $100 bills into the international banking system. In response, North Korea refused to participate further in the nuclear negotiations, sponsored by China and including Russia and Japan as well as the two Koreas and the United States.
After an 18-month investigation during which the nuclear talks were stalled, the Treasury Department decided to ban U.S. banks from dealing with Banco Delta Asia _ effectively sinking it _ but said
Macau could release the frozen funds to a North Korean government account in the Bank of China for humanitarian use.
That announcement, which also was hailed as a breakthrough, led nowhere, however, because the Bank of China and the Macau Monetary Authority raised questions about ownership of the funds and the propriety of handling money identified by the Treasury Department as tainted by criminal acts.