updated 4/20/2007 9:35:00 AM ET 2007-04-20T13:35:00

North Korea restated its commitment to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal Friday, saying it would invite U.N. atomic inspectors and discuss shutting down its bomb-making atomic reactor as soon as it confirmed the release of its funds frozen in a banking dispute.

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The statement appeared aimed at quelling concern that the unpredictable regime — which has a track record of reaching agreements and then scrapping them — may be dragging its feet after missing an April 14 deadline to shut down the reactor.

The North’s atomic agency chief, Ri Je Son, sent a message to the International Atomic Energy Agency to say that the country remained committed to the Feb. 13 agreement that set the deadline, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea is ready to invite the IAEA, “the moment the actual defreezing of the frozen fund in the bank has been confirmed,” Ri said, according to KCNA, adding that discussion of a shutdown of the North’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon could also then begin.

The comment echoes the North’s long-standing position that the resolution of the bank dispute is a precondition to its disarmament.

Dragging its feet?
North Korea boycotted international nuclear talks for more than a year over Washington’s blacklisting a Macau bank, where Pyongyang had $25 million in accounts, for its alleged assistance to money-laundering and passing counterfeit $100 bills by the communist regime.

The U.S. and the Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, said earlier this month that the North’s money had been unfrozen. But North Korea has not withdrawn the money for unknown reasons, prompting concern it may be dragging its feet.

Ri said Friday that the North and the Macau bank were having “brisk” negotiations to resolve the issue, but did not elaborate, according to KCNA.

A newspaper linked to the North Korean government, the Japan-based Choson Sinbo, said in an editorial that the disarmament accord “would already have entered into an implementation stage” if the U.S. had lifted sanctions that prevent North’s participation in the international financial system.

Food aid under discussion
In Pyongyang, South Korean officials discussed providing food aid to the North during economic talks between the countries.

The meetings, which began Wednesday and run through Saturday, are mainly aimed at discussing the North’s previous request for 400,000 tons of rice, and Seoul has wanted to use the aid talks to try to persuade the North to meet its nuclear obligations.

On Thursday, South Korea’s chief delegate raised the nuclear issue at the talks’ opening session. That angered his North Korean counterpart, prompting him to walk out of the meeting.

South Korea expressed regret Friday about the North’s walkout, and the two sides resumed talks, pool reports said.

“We had sincere talks today,” said Kim Jung-tae, a South Korean delegate. “Basically we discussed all issues that we have to discuss.”

The North’s chief delegate, Ju Dong Chan, said two sides “are making positive agreement on a series of issues,” said pool reports.

Since the February nuclear deal, South Korea has restarted some aid shipments to the North that had been suspended amid tensions over the North’s missile and nuclear tests last year. But Seoul has continued to withhold food assistance in a symbolic gesture to put pressure on the North to honor its nuclear obligations.

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