BEIJING—North Korea says it's "willing to fully cooperate" with international monitors in shutting down its main nuclear facility as soon as Washington lifts financial sanctions against a Macau bank, the U.N. nuclear chief said Wednesday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said his first trip to North Korea since it threw out nuclear inspectors in 2002 was "quite useful."
"We cleared the air. We opened the door for a normal relationship," ElBaradei said after returning to Beijing.
North Korean officials said they were "waiting for the lifting of financial sanctions" before proceeding with the agreed-on freezing and disabling of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and a plutonium factory, he said.
Further progress appeared to hinge on a pending announcement in Washington regarding a bank in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau. The Bush administration accused Banco Delta Asia in 2005 of helping North Korea launder money and traffic in counterfeit U.S. currency, leading to the freezing of at least $24 million in assets.
Under an agreement Feb. 13 among North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan and China, the Bush administration agreed to resolve the bank dispute within 30 days as part of a step-by-step disarmament plan.
On arriving Wednesday in Beijing, chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill promised an early resolution to the issue.
"The Macau issue will be resolved as we've promised," he said.
ElBaradei cut short a two-day visit to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, after a meeting with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, was canceled. ElBaradei said he met three other senior officials, and he downplayed the cancellation.
"He fell ill after coming back from New York," ElBaradei said. "So it's not true that he was too busy."
ElBaradei cautioned that the efforts to send U.N. monitors back to North Korea to help dismantle its nuclear program remain "quite fragile, precarious."
He said further actions depended on the end of U.S. sanctions on the Macau bank.
"Once that is to happen, they said, they are willing to fully cooperate with us and make sure that we implement the agreement. ... So I believe we are moving forward," he said.
U.S. officials said this week in Washington that the Treasury Department would clear the way for Macau authorities to release some of the frozen accounts deemed clean.
One of the clients with the largest sums frozen at the bank, Colin McAskill of Koryo Asia Ltd., which is buying the foreign-operated Daedong Credit Bank in Pyongyang, told McClatchy Newspapers last week that he expected to get back $6 million to $7 million.
U.S. officials in Washington said releasing the bank's money could take weeks, a potential hitch in coming weeks of nuclear talks.
If the bank issue is settled, North Korea is to shut down and seal its key nuclear reactors and list all its nuclear activities within the next month in exchange for economic assistance equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. Once the nuclear facilities are disabled, Kim Jong Il's regime would receive another 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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