As Deadline Looms, North Korea Seeks Confirmation Frozen Funds Released

North Korea said Friday it was still confirming the release of frozen funds that had been its key condition for dismantling its nuclear programs, making it unlikely it would meet a weekend deadline for shutting down its bomb-making reactor.

The North's Foreign Ministry said that its intention "remains unchanged" to implement a February agreement with the U.S. and regional powers on initial steps to disarm, and that the country "will also move when the lifting of the sanction is proved to be a reality."

The North has not yet withdrawn some US$25 million that was unfrozen this week in the Chinese territory of Macau at the Banco Delta Asia, which was blacklisted by Washington in September 2005 for allegedly helping the North launder money and pass counterfeit US$100 bills.

The North pledged in February to take initial steps to disarm including shutting down its main reactor by a Saturday deadline, in exchange for energy aid and political concessions along with a U.S. promise to resolve the bank issue. The move came following a 13-month boycott of nuclear talks, during which the North conducted its first-ever underground nuclear test in October.

North Korea gave no timeline Friday for when it would confirm the release of the money.

A North Korean "financial institution concerned will confirm soon whether the measure is valid," the North's Foreign Ministry said in the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Macau's Monetary Authority, which has taken control of the bank, has been tightlipped about the process of releasing the frozen funds. Wendy Au, a spokeswoman for the authority, said Friday she had no instructions from her superiors to provide any updates about the case.

Earlier, other countries in the arms talks had pressed the North to move quickly.

"It's time for them to get on with their obligations," the main U.S. envoy to the North Korea arms talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said in Seoul. "Let's hope that the (North) is waiting to the last minute to make that move."

"We know that the money is available," Hill said. "This is not a matter of Macau, it's a matter of whether (the North Koreans) want to fulfill what they said they would do for the denuclearization process."

Hill later flew to Beijing, where he played down expectations he may meet North Korea's nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan.

"That's up to them. I'm not hoping for anything," Hill told reporters.

When asked if he was ready to set a new deadline, Hill said: "No, I am ready to consult with the Chinese."

The talks involving China, Russia, Japan, the two Koreas and the U.S. have been hosted by Beijing.

U.S. officials and experts say the process of shutting down a reactor and having U.N. nuclear inspectors verify it would probably take several days — making it likely that Saturday's deadline would mark the latest failure in a nuclear standoff that has lasted more than four years.

"Things can get better any time, but it would be difficult to expect by tomorrow" the North to shut down its reactor, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said Friday during a forum in Seoul.

The problem in reaching the first of many milestones along the road to the North's possible disarmament raises questions about how smoothly the process will go forward. However, it is unlikely the U.S. or other countries would take any punitive action, as Washington also failed to resolve the bank issue within 30 days as promised.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was still awaiting an invitation from North Korea for a preliminary visit, a diplomat familiar with the issue said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

After a visit by two senior IAEA officials, the agency's board would convene to approve the first return of inspectors since December 2002, when North Korea kicked them out and quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Weeks could elapse between an invitation from the North and the board meeting, the diplomat said.

New negotiations over the North's nuclear program began in 2003, but the six-nation disarmament talks have so far failed to yield any tangible progress in getting the communist government to abandon weapons development.

After a reactor shutdown, the further step of dismantling the North's weapons programs — for which no deadline has yet been set — could take months or even years before all radioactive material is removed from the country.