N. Korea wants to delay reactor shutdown

( AP ) - North Korea's key condition for halting nuclear weapons development has been met now that frozen funds have been released, but it wants to delay a weekend deadline for shutting down its atomic reactor by a month, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

North Korea will invite back U.N. weapons inspectors as soon as it can access the money from bank accounts in the Chinese territory of Macau and will return to international talks on shutting its nuclear program "at an early date," the official said.

However, North Korea wants to delay a Saturday deadline for switching off its sole operating nuclear reactor by 30 days, the official said, adding that any such change would require agreement from all countries involved in arms talks with the North.

The six-party negotiations involve the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.

The comments were made to a visiting U.S. delegation, said the official with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy to the North Korea nuclear talks, said he hoped that U.N. nuclear inspectors would be able to travel to the North "in a matter of days."

"We see no reason why ( North Korea) should hold up anything right now," Hill said in Seoul after meeting South Korean diplomats. "I don't want to get into extending the deadline."

In a deal struck in February, North Korea pledged to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for energy aid and political concessions, while Washington agreed to resolve the financial issue in 30 days. However, technical difficulties delayed the release of the money from Macau's privately run Banco Delta Asia bank.

The U.S. blacklisted the Macau bank in 2005 for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering by North Korea; BDA has denied any wrongdoing. The move prompted the North to boycott the nuclear talks for more than a year, during which it conducted its first-ever nuclear weapons test in October.

"I think we have come to a very important juncture, which is we consider this (Banco Delta Asia) matter to be really resolved," Hill said. "Now is really an important time to get on with the ever-urgent task of denuclearization."

Macau's Monetary Authority said Wednesday that the holders of $25 million in North Korean accounts can now access the funds.

"The account holders, as long as they are authorized, can proceed to the bank to withdraw or transfer the money," authority spokeswoman Wendy Au said.

A U.S. delegation that includes New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Victor Cha, President Bush's top adviser on North Korea, and Anthony Principi, Bush's former veteran affairs secretary, ended a four-day trip to Pyongyang on Wednesday to recover remains of American servicemen killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The group made a rare crossing of the border dividing the Koreas around midday Wednesday with six sets of remains.

North Korea also agreed to meet U.S. envoy Hill soon to discuss implementing the Feb. 13 agreement, the U.S. official said, without giving a time.

Hill is expected in Beijing on Thursday, and said he was open to a meeting there with North Korea's main nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan.

If North Korea follows through with its promises, they would be the first moves the communist state has made to scale back its nuclear development since it expelled international inspectors and restarted its sole operating nuclear reactor in 2003.

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