BEIJING – The top U.S. nuclear envoy insisted Friday that a dispute over North Korean funds held in a Macau bank has been resolved, potentially removing a key stumbling block that has bedeviled progress on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, the U.N. top nuclear inspector told envoys to international arms talks that Pyongyang reassured him of its commitment to following the February agreement that laid down initial steps for disarmament including cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Japanese officials said in Beijing.
However, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, who visited Pyongyang earlier this week, said the North had stressed that the other countries at the arms talks also needed to honor their commitments — repeating demands for the lifting of sanctions on the Macau bank, a Japanese delegation member said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
North Korea has yet to react publicly to the U.S. decision Wednesday to ban American financial institutions from dealings with Macau's Banco Delta Asia for its complicity in North Korean money laundering.
The bank had been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department since September 2005, leading to a freeze of some $25 million in North Korean accounts.
The North boycotted nuclear talks for more than a year over the bank issue, during which it conducted its first nuclear test in October. But North Korea agreed to move toward disarmament after the U.S. promised to resolve the bank issue.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Friday there was no question that the issue had been solved.
"I think they want assurances that the Banco Delta Asia issues are resolved and we can give them those assurances that it is resolved," Hill told reporters.
His remarks came a day after China expressed "deep regret" over the U.S. decision.
A senior U.S. Treasury Department official, Daniel Glaser, is to travel to Macau to share the report's findings with officials there on Saturday. That could lead to the Macau government releasing some of the funds deemed to have resulted from legitimate business.
Banco Delta Asia, however, said it would appeal the ruling. It also denied that it "knew or suspected" that its North Korean customers were engaged in money laundering, said Stanley Au, chairman of Delta Asia Group (Holdings) Ltd. The bank is a unit of the group.
Under the landmark Feb. 13 disarmament agreement between North Korea, the United States and other regional powers, Pyongyang has pledged to shut down its main nuclear reactor and processing facility and allow U.N. inspectors for verification by April 14.
In return, North Korea would receive energy and economic assistance and a start toward normalizing relations with the U.S. and Japan.
North Korea is eventually to receive assistance worth 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil if it fully discloses and dismantles all nuclear programs.
Working groups to implement the pact are meeting in Beijing this week ahead of a full session of the six-nation talks Monday.
During a working group on regional peace and stability on Friday, North Korea raised concerns about an arms race in the region and lingering hostilities from the Cold War era, said a South Korean official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
But, he added, the North also expressed readiness to "be friends with the U.S. and Japan and become a responsible member of the international community."
A Japanese official who also spoke on condition of anonymity said that during the talks North Korea also complained it faced aggression, citing U.S. military exercises in the region.