A fresh round of international nuclear talks opened Monday with negotiators inching closer toward setting a timetable for Pyongyang’s disarmament after the biggest obstacle hindering discussions was removed — US$25 million in frozen North Korean funds.
Envoys from the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China gathered in Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse to review progress made by five working groups established under a hard-won Feb. 13 agreement.
The deal gives the North 60 days to shut down both its main reactor and a plutonium processing plant, and allow U.N. monitors to verify the closures. In return, the regime is to receive energy and economic assistance and a start toward normalizing relations with the U.S. and Japan.
“I think we’re in good shape for the 60 days,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top American envoy, told reporters at the end of the day. “It’s the next phase we really have to work on.”
Monday’s talks were possible because the biggest sticking point — North Korean funds frozen in the Macau lender Banco Delta Asia — had been resolved. Pyongyang had boycotted the international nuclear talks for more than a year after the U.S. alleged that it was using Banco Delta Asia to launder money and process counterfeit currency.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser said Monday that the money would be transferred into a North Korean account at the Bank of China in Beijing to be “used solely for the betterment of the North Korean people.”
The Monetary Authority of Macau, a Chinese territory, said in a statement that it will release the funds “in accordance with the instructions of the account holders” but did not give any other details.
“With the BDA issue resolved, the biggest obstacle on the path … has been removed,” South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo said. “Our next major tasks will be to discuss how and how fast we should proceed.”
Under the Feb. 13 pact, North Korea is required to list all its nuclear programs after the 60 days. A key obstacle could be its alleged uranium enrichment program, which the North has never publicly acknowledged having. South Korea is also to deliver 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to the North in exchange for the reactor shutdown.
Even though the largest stumbling block to progress was removed, new tensions arose Monday when North Korea questioned Japan’s qualifications to participate in the six nation talks.
Japan’s lead envoy Kenichiro Sasae said his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan “questioned Japan’s commitment to meet its requirements and also questioned its qualifications to remain participants.”
Kim made the remarks during the opening session of the talks, reiterating a position the regime has stated before. Sasae did not elaborate on what Kim said.