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US: North Korean Funds Released as Nuclear Deadline Nears

The U.S. State Department says Chinese officials in Macau have unblocked frozen North Korean bank accounts, and that Pyongyang must now begin shutting down its nuclear complex under terms of the disarmament deal reached in February. The compliance deadline for the first phase of the six-party agreement is Saturday April 14. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

North Korea had refused to move ahead with its part of the February 13 agreement until the $25 million in disputed funds were released.

Officials here say all obstacles to North Korean access to the money have now been cleared away, and it is up to Pyongyang to keep its part of the bargain by shutting down its Yongbyon reactor complex.

Under the landmark accord in the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks, North Korea agreed to end its nuclear program, including its weapons project, in exchange for energy aid and a variety of other incentives.

But the first phase of implementation stalled over the lingering issue of the North Korean funds held in Macau's Banco Delta Asia, which were frozen since 2005 under action by the U.S. Treasury Department, which said the bank had been a hub for counterfeiting and other illicit North Korean activity.

Although an announcement on the subject Tuesday by officials in Macau was vaguely worded, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that the North Korean funds were officially unblocked and said it was now incumbent on Pyongyang to begin the closure of the nuclear site:

"What we expect is for the February 13 agreement to be fully implemented, and that means shutting down the Yongbyon facilities," he said. "On that, there can be no compromise. That's a predicate for the process moving forward. So there's no partial credit on that. You need for that to happen. We'll see exactly where we are Saturday. And ultimately these come down to political and diplomatic judgments about technical matters."

McCormack acknowledged that the Soviet-era reactor at Yongbyon may take several days to safely shut down, and stopped short of demanding that the process be completed by Saturday.

North Korea has not yet allowed U.N. nuclear inspectors to return to site and monitor compliance.

But officials in Pyongyang are reported to have told visiting U.S. envoy Bill Richardson that the inspectors, expelled in 2002, would be allowed back in once the Banco Delta Asia money was released.

The chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill flew from Tokyo to Seoul Tuesday as he continued a mission in the region aimed at keeping the nuclear deal on track.

Spokesman McCormack said Hill would confer with Richardson, the New Mexico state governor, in the South Korean capital Wednesday on his talks in Pyongyang, which focused on the repatriation of remains of Americans killed in the 1950's Korean War.

If the first phase of the nuclear accord is implemented, the six parties to the agreement - the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, the United States and China - are to meet at the ministerial level to discuss the way forward. That would include U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's first meeting with her North Korean counterpart.