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North Korea Invites UN Nuclear Inspectors

With a protracted international banking dispute nearly resolved, North Korea is inviting international nuclear inspectors to visit the country. The move is widely viewed as a practical step toward implementing Pyongyang's promise to start dismantling its nuclear weapons programs. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

North Korea's Central News Agency reported Saturday that Pyongyang has sent a formal letter to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, inviting nuclear inspectors to make a visit to the country.

According to North Korean media, senior North Korean official Lee Je-sun wrote to the IAEA saying a working-level delegation of nuclear inspectors should visit, now that a banking dispute involving Macau's Banco Delta Asia is confirmed to have been resolved.

North Korea promised in February to shut down its main nuclear production facility by mid-April as a preliminary step toward full abandonment of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang missed that deadline, and said it would take no action until the Banco Delta Asia money had been transferred to its custody. A U.S. investigation had earlier led to the funds being frozen, and nearly all international banks have refused to handle transactions involving the funds.

The senior U.S. delegate to North Korean nuclear negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, says about $20 million in North Korean funds has been transferred out of BDA to a bank in Russia. He says with the issue resolved, Washington now expects Pyongyang to honor its part of the February agreement. "We've worked very hard with some of our six-party partners, including the Russian Federation," said Hill. "So our hope is we can see some progress very, very, soon."

During a visit to Mongolia Saturday, Hill said six-party nuclear negotiations - which also include China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - could resume as early as July. Hill is expected to visit Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo over the next week for talks aimed at getting the February agreement back on track.

South Korea's envoy to the nuclear talks, Chun Yung-woo, agrees it is time to move forward on ending the North's weapons programs. He says solving the BDA problem has removed the first obstacle to the February agreement. Now, he says, it is time to focus on fully implementing it.

Shutting down North Korea's main nuclear facility is only the first phase of the February agreement. The deal also provides for North Korea to make a full declaration of its nuclear capabilities, and work toward eventual diplomatic normalization with both the United States and Japan. North Korea is also due to receive huge amounts of energy and food aid, which its decrepit economy is unable to provide.

In a separate development, four North Koreans who arrived in Japan by boat on June 2 are now in South Korea, as they requested. The three men and one woman say they spent nearly a week at sea before arriving at a Japanese port.

More than 10,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, having fled economic shortage and political repression at home. Tens of thousands of others are believed to be in China, seeking an opportunity to travel to South Korea via a third country.