U.S.: It's Up to Macau Bank to Unfreeze North Korean Funds

A senior U.S. Treasury Department official said Saturday that Macau will have to decide whether to release North Korean funds frozen at a bank accused of helping the North launder money and handle counterfeit currency.

After meeting with Macau officials, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Danny Glaser declined to say whether he encouraged the Chinese territory to unfreeze any of the $25 million in North Korean accounts.

"The Macanese don't need my suggestions. What they needed was the information that we have and we passed that information on," said Glaser, who shared with Macau officials the findings of a 17-month-long investigation of the bank, Banco Delta Asia.

Macau was also mum about what it planned to do. The government issued a brief statement that didn't touch on the issue. It said both sides agreed that mutual dialogue and cooperation should be strengthened when dealing with the North Korean accounts.

As the two sides met, North Korea warned that if all the funds were not released, it would not halt its nuclear activities.

The accounts were frozen in September 2005 after Washington accused the bank of being a willing pawn in North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting. The move enraged North Korea, which boycotted six-nation talks on its nuclear program for more than a year. The discussions recently restarted after the U.S. promised to resolve the banking issue.

On Saturday, Glaser said the funds were discussed in the Macau talks, which were "cordial and productive."

"I think it is important to emphasize this was a Macanese action to freeze the funds, and it would be a Macanese process to make a determination about the release of the funds," said Glaser, who travels to Beijing on Sunday for more talks.

Also on Saturday, America's chief negotiator at the North Korean nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, said he met with Chinese envoy Wu Dawei and hoped that Beijing's concerns were allayed. Beijing, a key player in the six-nation talks, oversees Macau's government and will likely play a big role in deciding how much money is returned to North Korea.

Earlier this week, Washington announced it had wrapped up its probe of Banco Delta Asia and the bank would be cut off from the U.S. financial system.

The U.S. has yet to release any evidence it says supports its accusations against the bank.

Banco Delta Asia has said that it never knowingly assisted any illegal North Korean activities, and has said a separate probe by the accounting firm Ernst & Young did not support the U.S. charges.

The lender has also said it was too small to have the sophisticated equipment and personnel to guard against such illegal activity. But it has acknowledged that its anti-money laundering procedures were lax and have recently been improved.

Macau is a tiny territory with a peninsula and two islands off China's southern coast. The city was a Portuguese enclave until it was returned to China in 1999. Macau, known for its booming casino industry, is trying to transform itself into a major Asian tourist destination.