WASHINGTON – The United States said Tuesday that a financial deadlock stalling North Korean disarmament efforts has been broken and hinted that a looming deadline for action by the Stalinist state could be extended.
With just days to go before a weekend deadline for North Korea to shut down its main nuclear facility, the State Department said a stalemate over the release of $25 million in frozen North Korean bank accounts had been cleared.
“Authorized account holders, as of now, will be able to access the funds in those accounts,” spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. “We’ll see if they take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
McCormack cited comments from authorities in the Chinese territory of Macau where the money is held by the Banco Delta Asia, which has been blacklisted by Washington for allegedly helping North Korea launder money.
Macau’s Monetary Authority said the holders of North Korean accounts can withdraw or transfer their money.
In Pyongyang, a U.S. official said North Korea is ready to accept U.N. nuclear inspectors as soon as it can access the money. The commitment was made to a visiting U.S. delegation, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
McCormack maintained that the money had been freed for withdrawal, a position shared by South Korea.
Pyongyang had insisted the money be released before it closed its Yongbyon nuclear reactor as required by a February agreement.
Under that deal, the North has until Saturday to close the plant. McCormack acknowledged that closing and sealing the plant in four days might pose safety problems, suggesting a possible extension.
“We are now bumping up against the technical ability to safely shut down all the facilities related to Yongbyon,” McCormack said. “We’ll see where we are on Saturday.”
In South Korea, Hill expressed optimism the deadline could now be met.
“It’s obviously a big step that I think should clear the way for the (North) to step up the process of dealing with its obligations within the 60-day period,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. negotiator, referring to the Saturday deadline.
If North Korea follows through with its promises, they would be the first moves the communist state has made to scale back its nuclear development since it kicked out international inspectors and in 2003 restarted its sole operating nuclear reactor.
The only immediate cost the impoverished North would suffer for not shutting down the reactor by the deadline would be an initial 50,000-ton shipment of heavy fuel oil promised as a reward.