Beijing: The tempo of talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear threat will rest on bank transfers on 21 March as Pyongyang waits to receive freed funds before it lets six-party disarmament talks shift into high gear.
The latest session of the talks here that began on Monday was meant to focus on steering forward a 13 February accord calling North Korea to shut a plutonium-making reactor and accept other disarmament steps in 60 days in return for economic aid and security assurances.
North Korea has instead fixed on demands to first see $25 million freed from a Macau bank as part of the February deal, testing the patience of other negotiators and underscoring the pitfalls that could frustrate and even derail the disarmament deal with the wary and defiant communist state.
“I think we’ve got a lot to do,” the chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, told reporters late on Tuesday night. “I don’t think we can all stop while people are filling out bank forms.”
North Korea boycotted the six-party negotiations for over a year, blaming Macau’s freezing of its accounts with Banco Delta Asia (BDA), which came soon after Pyongyang signed a broad disarmament statement.
Washington accused the Macau bank of serving as a safe harbour for North Korea’s earnings from international crime, prompting Macau to freeze the accounts.
The US Treasury announced that it had banned US banks from dealing with BDA, marking the end of an inquiry into claims and so freeing Macau to release the frozen funds.
Hill said the US had done its bit to solve the bank impasse, and it was now up to Macau and China to transmit the money to North Korea.
The six-party talks bring together North and South Korea, host China, the US, Japan and Russia, who since August 2003 have tried to reach a deal ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
Pyongyang came back to the table in December, months after conducting its first nuclear test, which drew international condemnation and UN sanctions.
The focus on the bank money diverted negotiating energy from a tight agenda that includes seeking agreement on how to disable the Yongbyon reactor after it is closed and deciding other disarmament steps North Korea must take to get more aid, Hill said.
“We’ve got to get on with the denuclearisation process,” Hill said. “The issue that I’m focused on is the next step, because we’ve got to keep the momentum going.”
Some officials sounded hopeful that the bank squall would pass on Wednesday. North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan was also upbeat. “It’s going to go well,” he told a South Korean envoy. “We’re going to have a good dream tonight.”