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US Says North Korea Missing Deadline, But Nuclear Deal Not Scuttled

The United States acknowledged Friday that North Korea will miss a weekend deadline for shutting down its main nuclear facility. However, U.S. officials say the snag does not mean the collapse of the February agreement under which Pyongyang is to give up its nuclear program for energy aid and other benefits. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here admit there is no chance North Korea will be able to shut down the Yongbyon reactor complex by Saturday as envisaged in the February 13 Beijing agreement.

However, they say they are encouraged by a Friday statement from the Pyongyang government that it intends to respect its commitments under the six-party accord, and they say the lapse does not mean the painstakingly-negotiated deal is crumbling.

North Korea was to shut down and seal the Yongbyon site within sixty 60 days of the February accord, in return for an initial supply of 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

Over the long term, North Korea is to dismantle its entire nuclear program, including its weapons effort, in exchange for a million tons of fuel or equivalent aid and a range of other benefits including normal ties with the United States and Japan.

The first phase of implementation stalled over the return of $25 million in North Korean funds that had been frozen since 2005 in a Macau-based Chinese bank. The U.S. Treasury Department said the bank was a front for North Korean counterfeiting and other illicit activity.

The Bush administration acknowledges the process of releasing the money was more time-consuming than expected. But it says the money has been available since mid-week, even though Pyongyang said Friday it had not been able to access the funds, and as a result would not close the reactor complex.

At a news briefing, Deputy State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said it was clear the deadline would be missed but that the United States still expects North Korea to act in good faith.

"I think most experts would tell you that it is fairly hard to completely shut down and seal, for purposes of abandonment, which is what it says, I recall, in the February 13 agreement, a nuclear reactor in 24 hours," he said. "But again there are things they can do in the next 24 hours, and they need to it."

Casey, who said the Bush administration is not prepared to say the nuclear deal has collapsed, did not elaborate on steps the North Koreans should do immediately.

But a senior diplomat here said the first action should be inviting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are to certify the shutdown of Yongbyon under the February accord.

The U.S. diplomat said the dispute over the bank funds is "no excuse" for delaying action on the reactor shutdown. He said the February agreement provides no penalty for missing the deadline, but also said that Pyongyang needs to act in good faith if it expects any benefits.

He said until it upholds its end of the bargain, North Korea cannot expect the first installment of energy aid, or the convening of the ministerial review conference to be held after 60 days. That is to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's first meeting ever with her North Korean counterpart.

Spokesman Casey said there are no plans for a formal meeting of the parties over the weekend when the deadline passes, and that U.S. officials would consult with other governments in the next few days to decide on the next steps.