SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea wanted to delay a weekend deadline for shutting down its nuclear reactor by a month, but the United States said that was too long, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday.
"We let them know that this was not acceptable and the issue was dropped," he said. Instead, Richardson said the shutdown should only take a "few days."
"Now the ball is in North Korea's court to take the next important steps," he said, adding that officials there had reaffirmed a commitment to making initial moves to disarm.
Richardson, who was speaking in Seoul after a four-day trip to the North, said that Pyongyang offered to welcome U.N. nuclear inspectors within a day of receiving frozen funds that have been an obstacle in disarmament talks.
The comments were the clearest North Korean reaction yet to an announcement that authorities have released North Korea's money held in Banco Delta Asia — a Macau bank blacklisted by Washington.
The communist country struck a deal with the U.S. and four other nations in February to shut down its main nuclear reactor by Saturday in exchange for economic aid and political concessions.
If North Korea follows through with its promises, they would be the first moves Pyongyang has made to scale back its nuclear development since it kicked out international inspectors and in 2003 restarted its sole operating nuclear reactor.
But the hard-won agreement, reached four months after Pyongyang rattled the world by testing a nuclear device, was held up by the dispute over North Korean funds frozen in the Macau bank.
Authorities in the Chinese territory of Macau said Wednesday that North Korea can withdraw the money. Richardson said the Macau bank is expected to formally notify North Korea later Wednesday or Thursday that the regime can access its funds.
Acknowledging it might be difficult to meet the Saturday reactor shutdown deadline, Richardson called on the North to show goodwill and invite U.N. inspectors by then "to at least start the process of shutting it down."
The financial issue has brought the nuclear negotiations to a standstill as North Korea insisted it would not talk about disarmament measures until it gets its money back. Pyongyang has claimed that the freeze on its funds shows the United States' hostile intentions toward the isolated communist regime.
The U.S. blacklisted the Macau bank in 2005 for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering by North Korea. BDA has denied any wrongdoing.
U.S. officials insisted that the financial dispute was no longer an issue.
"I think we have come to a very important juncture, which is we consider this (Banco Delta Asia) matter to be really resolved," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Seoul after meeting South Korean diplomats. "Now is really an important time to get on with the ever-urgent task of denuclearization."
"We see no reason why (North Korea) should hold up anything right now," Hill said. "I don't want to get into extending the deadline."
Hill is expected in Beijing on Thursday, and said he was open to a meeting there with North Korea's main nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan.
Earlier Wednesday, Richardson's delegation made a rare North to South crossing through the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula at the truce village of Panmunjom, also bringing with them the remains of six U.S. soldiers from the Korean War.