N. Korea Demands May Delay Reactor Shutdown
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 2:22 PM
BEIJING, March 14 -- The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday that North Korean officials told him they will begin shutting down their main nuclear reactor only after the United States lifts financial restrictions against North Korea.
Mohamed ElBaradei, speaking here after completing a visit to North Korea, said officials made it clear they were still willing to carry out a Feb. 13 commitment to close the reactor, a plutonium-based facility at Yongbyon near Pyongyang.
But he said they also stressed that the United States must first fulfill its pledge to cancel measures that have frozen millions of dollars in North Korean-linked accounts at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, accused by U.S. investigators of money-laundering.
Under the agreement reached Feb. 13 in Beijing, the Bush administration promised to resolve the banking dispute within 30 days, a deadline that has arrived. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator in North Korean nuclear talks, reiterated the U.S. pledge Wednesday on arrival in Beijing for another round of the Chinese-sponsored talks aimed at creating a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Hill did not describe the shape of the solution, which was being worked out by the Treasury Department and was scheduled for announcement Wednesday afternoon. The Treasury Department announced Wednesday afternoon that it will take actions to sever ties between Banco Delta Asia and the U.S. financial system and transmit its findings about the bank's alleged money-laundering for North Korea to Macau authorities this week. The action actually could enable Macau to release at least some of the $25 million in frozen North Korean assets, the Associated Press reported.
It was not immediately clear how the North Koreans would react to Treasury's announcement. Against the background of what ElBaradei was told by North Korean officials, a solution that fell short of North Korea's demands could lead to new delays in closing the reactor.
In the Feb. 13 accord -- a milestone in the long-stalled six-nation negotiations -- North Korea undertook to shut down and seal the Yongbyon reactor within 60 days as a first step toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program and disclosing the entire range of its nuclear research activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. branch based in Vienna, was assigned to police the agreement with inspections of North Korea's facilities.
In return, North Korea was to receive a first shipment of fuel oil, part of a package of economic aid linked to further steps in doing away with its nuclear weapons program and submitting to inspection.
ElBaradei, seeking to renew contacts cut off by North Korea in 2002, said his one day of talks with senior North Korean officials allowed him to "clear the air" and open the door for what he expressed hope would be cooperation in policing the agreement and, longer-term, North Korea's eventual return to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
At a news conference, ElBaradei said he met with the head of North Korea's atomic energy agency, Ri Je Son, and other senior officials. The chief North Korean nuclear negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, was said to be sick and unable to see him, ElBaradei said. The talks were preliminary, ElBaradei stressed, and part of what he outlined as a long process of renewed cooperation that would be "better for North Korea, better for the world."
"The DPRK also said that they are fully committed to the Feb. 13 agreement," ElBaradei said, using the initials for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But they added that the Banco Delta Asia dispute must first be resolved satisfactorily, he explained after traveling here from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
"Once that was to happen," he said, "they said they were fully committed to working with us to make sure the agreement is carried out within the time frame envisaged."
Hill and envoys from the five other nations involved in the talks -- China, North and South Koreas, Japan and Russia -- have scheduled a new round beginning Monday, to be preceded by several days of working-group discussions on specific topics. Chinese officials said the goal is to decide on the next steps to carry out an over-all accord dating from September 2005 calling for North Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons in return for economic aid and normalized relations with the United States.