By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 17, 2007
BEIJING, June 16 -- North Korea announced Saturday that it has invited U.N. inspectors to return for discussions on closing down its main nuclear reactor, suggesting the end of a long stalemate.
The announcement, on the official Korean Central News Agency, indicated that the tangle over $25 million in frozen North Korean funds is nearing an end and held out promise that international efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program may be revived in the weeks ahead.
The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, expressed hope that the Chinese-sponsored denuclearization talks could start again in July. He told reporters in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, where he attended a conference, that he will visit Beijing and other Asian capitals next week to discuss a new round of the six-nation talks.
Transfer of the blocked funds to North Korea "has reached its final phase," the North Korean agency said, and this opens the way for arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to supervise "suspension of the operation of nuclear facilities" at Yongbyon. In a letter to its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA was invited to send in a working-level team to make the arrangements, the agency added. It did not specify when they would be expected to travel to North Korea.
Closing and sealing the Yongbyon reactor, in return for an initial delivery of fuel oil, was the first step in a carefully phased denuclearization program agreed to Feb. 13 in the talks in Beijing among North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States. It was to be followed by other steps, including more oil deliveries and dismantling of the reactor. But North Korea refused to move until it received the $25 million, frozen by Macau's banking authority after accusations from the U.S. Treasury in 2005 that some of it was tainted by money laundering and counterfeiting.
According to U.S. officials, at least $23 million of the disputed funds was moved this week from Macau's monetary authority to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then to Russia's central bank. On Monday, the money is expected to be transferred to a Russian commercial bank near the border with North Korea.
Despite a last-minute delay in getting the funds from the Russian bank's headquarters to the North Korean branch accounts, the announcement Saturday suggested North Korea is ready to start closing the Yongbyon reactor as agreed.
"I think what we need to do, what the DPRK will need to do, is to get moving on their own obligations, because, believe me, we have been working on our own obligations," Hill told the Reuters news agency, using initials for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
But it was unclear whether the announcement means North Korea would proceed with other denuclearization steps agreed to in February.