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US Envoy Says North Korea May Not Meet Nuclear Disarmament Deadline

The top U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill says a mid-April deadline for North Korea to shut down its nuclear reactor is becoming difficult to meet because of an ongoing dispute over frozen North Korean funds. Hill made the comments in Japan one day after a bipartisan U.S. team headed by former ambassador Bill Richardson arrived in Pyongyang. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

U.S. envoy Christopher Hill told reporters in Tokyo Monday he was still hopeful North Korea could meet a Saturday deadline to shut down its nuclear facilities and let inspectors into the country. But he said the dispute over North Korean accounts was making that less likely.

North Korea has refused to implement a February agreement to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for aid until it receives 25 million dollars in North Korean accounts from a Macau bank.

A group of U.S. envoys now visiting North Korea, including U.S. presidential candidate and Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, said North Korea's head negotiator Kim Kye-Kwan told them Pyongyang would immediately welcome international nuclear inspectors if and when the funds reach North Korea.

Andrei Lankov is a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. He says even if North Korea misses the April 14th deadline it is still likely to keep to the agreement because it has little to lose and much to gain.

"The current agreement is a major diplomatic victory of North Korea," Lankov says. "They are getting money for freezing their nuclear program. But, in spite of all hopes and so on, there is no clear-cut agreement about them dismantling their nuclear weapons."

Lankov says the North Koreans are not in a big hurry to receive aid equal to 50 thousand tons of heavy fuel oil, promised for closing its nuclear facilities, and will continue to negotiate as they see fit.

"They are getting aid from China. They are getting aid from South Korea. And, generally speaking Chinese and South Korean aid is on larger scale than the aid they can realistically expect to get from the United States and the international community," Lankov says.

The North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macau were previously frozen due to U.S. suspicions of counterfeiting and other illicit activity. Washington had agreed the funds could be unfrozen to facilitate the nuclear negotiations but the Bank of China reportedly refused to accept the transfer for fear of damaging its reputation.

Last week the U.S. State Department said an agreement had been reached with all parties involved, including the Bank of China. Washington has not explained when or how the North would receive the transfer and the North has not yet received the cash.

Hill will travel to South Korea and China this week to try and resolve the dispute and push forward negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programs.