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U.S. undecided over lifting restrictions against North Korea

BEIJING—A U.S. envoy said Wednesday that in reviewing records from a Macau bank with a North Korean team, the U.S. had been vindicated in alleging that Pyongyang used the bank for illicit activity.

The talks ended Wednesday evening with no firm word on whether the Bush administration would ease the financial restrictions against North Korea that caused talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program to stall in September 2005.

However, momentum from behind-the-scenes negotiations appears to be growing, suggesting that there may be some headway toward resuming nuclear talks. China, the host of the talks, was confident enough Tuesday to announce that the talks would resume Feb. 8.

Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei told journalists Wednesday night that next week's talks could be over "within three to four days."

Daniel Glaser, the U.S. deputy assistant treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, said his team and a North Korean counterpart went over portions of 300,000 pages of records from Banco Delta Asia, a Macau bank that Washington accuses of laundering money and funneling counterfeit U.S. currency on behalf of North Korea.

"It was a painstaking effort to go through about 50 account holders one by one," Glaser said. "We got some new information that was very helpful to us."

Glaser said the two days of talks concluded without any acknowledgement from North Korea of its alleged role in the blacklisted bank's activities.

"It's not a question of accepting charges or denying charges," Glaser said. "The purpose of the group was to work the information with the North Koreans to allow us to make the determinations that we think would be appropriate."

Glaser said he expected to meet again with North Korean financial authorities to discuss the restrictions, but he didn't give a timetable.

He said U.S. officials had thought all along that "there was highly suspicious activity going on at the bank." Now, he said, "We have been vindicated with respect to our concerns about that."

North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear-weapons test Oct. 9, has refused to return to nuclear talks that also include Russia, Japan and South Korea unless the U.S. eases the financial restrictions.

Senior U.S. officials also have suggested that talks between U.S. and North Korean envoys in Berlin two weeks ago and in Beijing this week offer positive signs that the nuclear negotiations may resume.

"I wouldn't want to raise false hopes here," U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte told a Senate panel Tuesday at his confirmation hearing to become deputy secretary of state. "But I do think there's some grounds for optimism that we can move that issue forward."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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