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South Korean Rice Aid Delayed As North Skirts Nuclear Promise

South Korean officials say it is unlikely that massive rice shipments will be sent to North Korea by the end of the month, as previously scheduled. The impoverished North, which badly needs food and basic supplies, has not taken initial steps it promised towards ending its nuclear weapons program. As VOA Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin reports, North Korean officials are using a diplomatic forum in the Philippines to warn Pyongyang's disarmament will not come quickly.

South Korean lawmakers formally approved the shipment of 400,000 tons of rice to North Korea last week - but now, South Korean officials say it will probably not cross the border before the end of May.

Although it was never an explicit part of the agreement in which Seoul promised the rice at last month's high-level inter-Korean talks, South Korean officials have consistently said aid depends on Pyongyang fulfilling a nuclear agreement it made in February.

The North promised to shut down its main nuclear facility in Yongbyon under international inspection by mid-April. That deadline passed more than a month ago with no action.

Washington's main envoy on the nuclear issue, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said Thursday in Hanoi, Vietnam, that Pyongyang has waited long enough.

"I think it's time for North Korea to pick up the phone and call IAEA and begin this process of shutting down this facility," he said.

Pyongyang has refused to take any action on the nuclear issue for a year and a half in a dispute over $25 million of its funds frozen in a Macau bank by a U.S. Treasury Department investigation. Washington says the money was derived from illegal North Korean activities, but has since taken steps to clear the way for its release.

Experts say no international bank wants to jeopardize its dealings with the United States by processing the funds - creating what Hill calls one of the most complex technical challenges of his career.

"We have been working very hard on this banking matter. It will be resolved," he said.

Hill is heading to the Philippines later this week for a regional forum that North Korean delegates are also expecting to attend. In a report submitted to the forum, Pyongyang signaled Thursday that resolving the banking issue alone will not end their nuclear programs.

The report calls South Korea, Japan, and the United States the biggest security threats facing Asia. It says Pyongyang will not shut down its nuclear programs unless what it calls the U.S. nuclear threat against the North is removed.

In the decades since North Korea's 1950 invasion of the South, military planners say Pyongyang has amassed hundreds of artillery and short-range rockets along the two countries' border. Experts estimate those weapons could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the South Korean capital in a matter of hours.