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US Says Macau Ready to Unblock North Korean Accounts

  • Daniel Schearf

U.S. officials say Macau authorities are ready to release $25 million from North Korean bank accounts. Pyongyang has refused to halt its nuclear programs until it receives the money. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The statement from the Treasury Department says it understands that Macau authorities are prepared to release all North Korean accounts currently frozen in a Macau bank - about $25 million.

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill currently in Tokyo, also says a resolution to the banking dispute is imminent.

Macau's government Web site says authorities there expect all parties concerned to come up with "appropriate and responsible arrangements."

Release of the funds could put the February Agreement - in which North Korea agreed to gradually halt its nuclear program in exchange for aid - back on track. A first step toward shutting down its nuclear facilities and allowing international inspectors back into the country has a Saturday deadline, although diplomats from several nations have said that will not be met.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang indicated his government does not think the delay will undermine the six-nation agreement on ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

"I do not agree that because of some delays in the initial stage the six-party talks will fail or be annulled," said Qin Gang.

Last month North Korean negotiators halted talks because the funds had not yet been released. But, on Monday the North's chief nuclear negotiator indicated to visiting U.S. officials that Pyongyang could quickly comply with the agreement once they money was transferred.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations at the People's University of China, says the deadline for the shutdown is not that important. The real task remains convincing Pyongyang to give up all its nuclear programs, which he says is unlikely to happen.

"The international community's demonstrated incentives do not constitute substantive pressure. Under this situation, I do not think North Korea will truly abandon (its nuclear power)," he said.

The bank accounts had been frozen in 2005 by Macau due to U.S. suspicions of North Korean counterfeiting and other illicit activity. Washington agreed the funds could be released to help facilitate the nuclear negotiations but the Bank of China reportedly refused to transfer the money for fear of damaging its reputation.

Despite progress on the banking issue, Japan Tuesday said it would extend unilateral sanctions against North Korea by six months because of the North's refusal to discuss its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970's and 1980's.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is in South Korea where he is expected to discuss North Korea, among other issues. A continuing round of diplomacy, focused on making progress with North Korea, will see US envoy Hill in Beijing later this week.

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