The chief U.S. negotiator at talks on North Korea's nuclear programs says Pyongyang may already have its money back from a Macau bank and should shut down its nuclear facilities in a matter of weeks. As Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing, finding a bank to receive the formerly frozen North Korean funds has proven a big obstacle to restarting the nuclear talks.
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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill says North Korea's nuclear shutdown should go forward after a Russian bank last week agreed to receive more than $20 million in North Korean funds that had been frozen in Macau.
Hill told reporters in Beijing the money was in the Russian banking system as of last Saturday and may have already arrived in North Korea. He said it should be only a matter of weeks before nuclear talks can continue.
"It took us a long time, longer than any of us suspected. I think all of us have learned a lot about banking in the process, for what that is worth. But, I think now we have made an important turn and we are back onto the subject at hand, which is denuclearization," he said.
Hill says it should not take North Korea more than a couple of weeks to shut down its nuclear facilities.
"I think political will is something we are going to need," added Hill. "But, from a technical point of view I think all of it is quite doable. What we need to do is be very active diplomatically and, frankly, imaginative diplomatically to get back on our timelines."
North Korea agreed in February to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow U.N. inspections in return for heavy fuel oil, a security guarantee, and diplomatic incentives.
But Pyongyang refused to move forward with the agreement because of a delay in transferring its frozen funds and missed an April deadline to shut down the reactor.
Macau authorities froze the accounts in 2005 after U.S. suspicions that a bank in the Chinese territory was aiding North Korean money laundering. North Korea boycotted nuclear discussions for over a year and only returned to the table last December after Washington promised to discuss unfreezing the money.
After an investigation, the United States concluded the bank had indeed aided illicit North Korean activity, including counterfeiting and drug dealing. But U.S. officials still agreed to unfreeze the cash to get North Korea back to negotiations.
No bank could be found that was willing to transfer the suspected illicit funds until last week, when Russia agreed to transfer the money to Pyongyang.
Hill, who is in Seoul, says South Korea may ship the first batch of heavy fuel oil to North Korea as early as this week.