N.Korea plans to close nuke facility

Updated: 2007-03-17 19:51

BEIJING - North Korea told delegates at international nuclear talks on Saturday that it is preparing to shut down its main nuclear facility, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy said, a key step promised in a landmark pact last month.

North Korea's delegation told a working group meeting that it has "begun preparations to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility," South Korean nuclear envoy Chun Yung-woo told reporters.

North Korea also said it will submit a list of its nuclear programs and will disable its nuclear facility "as soon as the right conditions are created," Chun said, without explaining what the conditions were.

The remarks came hours after North Korea's main negotiator said his country will not stop its nuclear activities unless all of the $25 million of its money frozen in a Macau bank is released.

The U.S. Treasury Department earlier this week ended its investigation of Banco Delta Asia - which had been blacklisted for its alleged complicity in North Korean money laundering - paving the way to unfreeze a portion of the money.

However, the North's Kim Kye Gwan said Pyongyang expected all the funds to be released before it would follow through on a Feb. 13 agreement to close its main nuclear facility and allow U.N. inspectors to visit.

"We will not stop our nuclear activity until our funds frozen in the BDA are fully released," he said, referring to the bank by its initials. "We will not stop the Yongbyon nuclear facility until the United States fully releases our funds frozen in the BDA."

Kim said his government had not heard anything official about the lifting of financial sanctions. He arrived in Beijing Saturday ahead of a new round of six-nation nuclear disarmament talks set to begin Monday. It was the first official response by the North to Washington's decision.

Washington had promised to resolve the issue as part of the implementation of the February agreement under which North Korea agreed to shut down Yongbyon, its main nuclear reactor and processing facility, and allow U.N. inspectors in 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.

Christopher Hill, the chief American nuclear negotiator, said earlier Saturday that he planned to brief Kim on the issue on Saturday, but did not foresee any complications.

"I don't think BDA will be an obstacle," he said before meeting Kim. "I think we'll work that out."

A senior U.S. Treasury Department official arrived in Macau on Saturday to discuss the results of the investigation with Macanese officials.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Danny Glaser said Saturday that Macau will have to decide whether to release any of the North Korean funds that have been frozen since 2005.

"The Macanese authorities have been acting professionally and responsibly through the course of this matter," he told reporters.

"We did discuss the funds. I think it is important to emphasize this was a Macanese action to freeze the funds, and it would be a Macanese process to determine" whether to release them, he said.

The risk assessment carried out by the Treasury Department could be used by Macau authorities to release between $8 million and $12 million of the frozen funds, The Associated Press has reported.

Hill also said the U.S. plans to raise the issue of North Korea's alleged uranium enrichment program during international nuclear talks.

U.S. allegations that North Korea has a uranium enrichment program brought on the nuclear crisis in 2002 that led the country to kick out U.N. inspectors and ultimately contributed to North Korea testing its first nuclear bomb in October.

North Korea has never publicly acknowledged that it has such a program, although Kim indicated the North was willing to discuss the issue with Washington.

"We are willing to cooperate with the United States to address the allegations," Kim said. "We will clarify this when (the U.S.) presents the evidence."

Washington will also discuss benchmarks for progress in Pyongyang's denuclearization efforts, Hill said.

North Korea would be rewarded for meeting those benchmarks with deliveries of heavy fuel oil agreed under the agreement, he said.

Also Saturday, delegates from the six nations involved in the nuclear talks - the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.- met for a working group meeting focused on the denuclearization process.

Akio Suda, Japan's ambassador in charge of the North Korea nuclear issue, said discussions focused on the need to get Pyongyang's nuclear programs "abandoned and incapacitated" but didn't give any details.

The meeting will last through Sunday, said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, China's top negotiator.

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