WASHINGTON – The United States will soon recommend releasing a significant amount of frozen North Korean bank accounts, officials say, which diplomats hope will keep North Korea from reneging on its pledge to scrap nuclear weapons.
The Treasury Department could announce as soon as next week that several million dollars connected to North Korea are not tainted by links to rogue nuclear proliferation or allegations of counterfeiting, smuggling and other crimes.
The U.S. move is expected to prompt overseas bank regulators to unfreeze between $8 million and $12 million from about $24 million in blocked assets, one official said.
Treasury and State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe results of an ongoing Treasury review.
Although the amount of money is relatively small, the frozen accounts became an unexpectedly large stumbling block in troubled nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The move was an affront to the secretive communist regime, and it had a devastating ripple effect that further estranged North Korea from the global banking system.
North Korea pointed to what it called unfair U.S. sanctions as a reason to boycott disarmament talks for more than a year. The restrictions were still a sore point when the North did return to talks in December. The North Korean negotiator refused to discuss the country's weapons until Washington budged.
An agreement to resolve the matter within 30 days was key to a potential breakthrough deal that the North struck Feb. 13 with the United States and four other nations.
The money is held by a blacklisted bank in Macau that North Korea accuses of complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering. A Treasury Department delegation was in Macau, a semiautonomous territory of China, this week to discuss results of the department's 18-month review of the Banco Delta Asia accounts.
"We intend to handle this matter in a straightforward way based on the evidence and the law," Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said Friday. "As we have always said, the designation of Banco Delta Asia as a primary money laundering concern is separate from the nuclear talks."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other diplomats had also said the financial restrictions were a law enforcement matter that should not affect the nuclear negotiations, but it was clear even before the Feb. 13 deal that one issue could not be resolved without the other.
"They've gathered a real mountain of information," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday. "They've gone through it ... and I expect in the coming period of time the Treasury will be addressing the issue of how they have resolved the issue related to Banco Delta Asia."
Washington slapped restrictions on Banco Delta Asia in 2005 and put it on a money-laundering blacklist, prompting Macau to freeze the $24 million. Banks worldwide then shunned North Korean business for fear of losing access to American markets.
Banco Delta Asia has said money might have been laundered at the bank, but there was no evidence the institution was aware it was being used for that purpose. It said it was a small, family owned bank that didn't have the technology to check big batches of U.S. currency for fake bills.
The bank also said it used a dated computer system and it didn't pay enough attention to maintaining its own books. It also has said the bank didn't have adequate written anti-money-laundering policies for its staff.
South Korea's foreign minister met with Rice and other senior U.S. officials Friday at a crucial moment in North Korean disarmament efforts. The North said in the February accord that, in exchange for aid, it would close its main nuclear reactor within 60 days. A much larger shipment of aid — about $250 million worth — would follow once the North had declared all its nuclear programs and begun to disable them.
As part of the nuclear agreement, on Monday and Tuesday in New York, the lead U.S. envoy at the nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean negotiating counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, are to discuss first steps toward establishing normal ties after decades of hostility that followed the 1950-53 Korean War.