China suggested on Thursday the release of North Korean funds blocked in a Macau bank, the trigger for Pyongyang to start shutting a nuclear reactor, was still not quite resolved, but the United States said it was.
Washington said Macau authorities had unblocked about $25 million of North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia frozen for 18 months and Pyongyang could now pick up the money.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news conference in Beijing: "We hope the issue of the bank funds can be properly resolved as soon as possible."
"The legitimate and reasonable concerns and interests of all parties should be addressed so we can find a way to properly resolve the issue as soon as possible," he added, referring to concern in China about how to handle the funds from the BDA which Washington accuses of money laundering.
North Korea insists the money be returned before it starts shutting down the Yongbyon atomic reactor, which supplies it with weapons-grade plutonium, as part of an international deal for its nuclear disarmament.
‘The accounts are available’
"Their money is available, so this is no longer about BDA in my opinion. This is about their undertakings with respect to denuclearization. BDA is over," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters in Seoul, where he met officials.
The Bush administration's top Korea expert, Victor Cha, who visited Pyongyang this week, said the North Koreans were well aware of the April 14 deadline. "They understand Saturday is an important day. That is the 60-day mark," he told reporters in Tokyo.
He said North Korea should now move fast to shut down its nuclear facilities. "In our minds, it (the BDA issue) has been resolved completely," he said. "The accounts are available and open for business. So go get them."
"The ball is really in their court now. We don't have a whole lot of time," Cha added.
South Korea's chief envoy to six-country talks on ending the North's nuclear ambitions said it could take a few days to resolve the hold-up over the funds.
"It's time for North Korea to move and until North Korea moves, there is nothing we can do," Chun Yung-woo said after a meeting with Hill.
That means North Korea is likely to miss a Saturday deadline to start shutting down the reactor under the February 13 deal reached with China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
In Washington State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there would be consultations over the weekend among the six parties over whether the deadline had been met.
"We will make an assessment over where we are then," McCormack said when asked what would happen if North Korea did not meet the deadline. "Don't expect an instant reaction."
The United States has done everything it can to ensure the North Korean funds blocked in a Macau bank can be transferred and it is up to Pyongyang to access the funds, he said.
North Korea told a U.S. delegation led by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Pyongyang this week that it could start the shut-down process within a day of receiving its money by inviting back International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors for the first since 2002.