SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea reiterated its commitment to a nuclear disarmament deal Friday, promising to invite U.N. inspectors and discuss shutting down an atomic reactor as soon as it confirms the release of funds frozen in a banking dispute.
The North's statement was not a change in its position, and appears to be aimed at quelling concerns that the unpredictable regime — which has a track record of reaching agreements and then scrapping them — may be dragging its feet in implementing the nuclear deal after missing an April 14 deadline to shut down the reactor.
The North's atomic agency chief, Ri Je Son, sent a message to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to say Pyongyang remains committed to the Feb. 13 disarmament agreement that specified the deadline, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
The U.S. and Banco Delta Asia said earlier this month that the North's money had been unfrozen. But North Korea has not withdrawn the money yet, for unknown reasons.
Ri said Friday that the North and Banco Delta Asia were having "brisk" negotiations to resolve the issue, but did not elaborate, according to KCNA.
North Korea is ready to invite the IAEA "the moment the actual defreezing of the frozen fund in the bank has been confirmed and (to) discuss the issues of suspending the operation of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon and verifying and monitoring procedures of it," Ri said, according to KCNA.
The comment echoes the North's long-standing position that the resolution of the bank dispute is a precondition to its disarmament. North Korea boycotted international nuclear talks for more than a year because Washington blacklisted a Macau bank where Pyongyang held US$25 million. The U.S. accused Banco Delta Asia of helping the North to launder money and pass counterfeit US$100 bills.
Meanwhile, a newspaper linked to the North Korean government blamed the U.S. for the delay in shutting down the reactor, and called for the lifting of sanctions that have blocked the North from carrying out international financial transactions.
The Japan-based Choson Sinbo said the steps laid out in the disarmament accord "would already have entered into an implementation stage" if the U.S. had guaranteed the North could participate in the international banking system.
In Pyongyang, South Korean officials discussed providing food aid to the North during economic talks between the countries.
The meetings, which began Wednesday and run through Saturday, are mainly aimed at discussing a request from the North for 400,000 tons of rice, although Seoul also wants to use the talks to try to persuade Pyongyang to meet its nuclear obligations.
The North's chief delegate, Ju Dong Chan, was upbeat over the prospects of the talks at a banquet with the South Korean delegation, saying the two sides "are making positive agreement on a series of issues," said pool reports. He did not elaborate.
South Korea's chief delegate, Chin Dong-soo, said further discussions are needed on several unspecified issues, but he voiced expectation that they can produce agreement.
Earlier in the day, Chin expressed regret after his counterpart stormed out of a meeting the previous day in anger over Seoul's appeal that Pyongyang abide by its nuclear disarmament pledge.
Since February, South Korea has resumed some aid shipments to the North that were suspended after Pyongyang tested a missile and a nuclear bomb last year. But Seoul has continued to withhold food assistance in a symbolic gesture to put pressure on the North to honor its nuclear obligations.