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(photo credit: AP)
North Korea's key condition for moving forward in a deal to halt its nuclear program, including allowing visits by UN inspectors, has been met now that its funds in a Macau bank have been unblocked, a US official said Wednesday.
North Korea will invite back the inspectors as soon as it can access the money and will return to international talks on disarming its nuclear program "at an early date," the official said.
The commitment was made to a visiting US delegation, said the official with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
"This meets their basic conditions. This is what they wanted since December 2005," the official said, referring to when Washington blacklisted the small Banco Delta Asia bank for allegedly helping North Korea launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills. The bank has denied any wrongdoing.
In a deal struck in February, North Korea pledged to shut down its main atomic reactor by Saturday in exchange for energy aid and political concessions, but progress on that had been held up by the dispute over the money.
Macau's Monetary Authority said Wednesday that the holders of North Korean accounts can now withdraw or transfer their money.
Wendy Au, an authority spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that the US$25 million was ready to be handed over to the owners of the accounts.
"The account holders, as long as they are authorized, can proceed to the bank to withdraw or transfer the money," she said, without commenting further.
A US delegation that includes New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Victor Cha, President George W. Bush's top adviser on North Korea, and Anthony Principi, Bush's former veteran affairs secretary, ends a four-day trip to Pyongyang on Wednesday to recover remains of American servicemen killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
The US official said there was no decision on extending the Saturday deadline as a result of talks in North Korea.
"We expect now that they are able to access their accounts, they really have to start moving rapidly to start fulfilling their actions. They have no time," the official said.
North Korea also agreed to meet chief US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill soon to discuss implementing the Feb. 13 agreement, the official said, without giving a time.
Hill is in Seoul and is expected in Beijing on Thursday. He expressed hope that North Korea could still meet the weekend deadline for taking initial steps toward dismantling its nuclear program.
"It's obviously a big step that I think should clear the way for the (North) to step up the process of dealing with its obligations within the 60-day period," Hill said in Seoul.
South Korean nuclear envoy Chun Young-woo, speaking with Hill, said all North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia had been unblocked.
"This means North Korean account holders can withdraw the money in all of the accounts," Chun said.
McCormack said it could take "anywhere from a week onwards" for the North Koreans to shut down the nuclear facilities at Yongbyan.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to grant the North Koreans an extension under the circumstances, McCormack said, "Let's take a look at where we are on Saturday."
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.
The only immediate cost the impoverished North would suffer for not shutting down the reactor by the deadline would be an initial 50,000-ton shipment of heavy fuel oil promised as a reward. That shipment is part of 1 million tons of oil it would get for dismantling its nuclear programs.