North Korea says it will start moves to shut its nuclear reactor within a day of receiving millions of dollars blocked for 18 months in a Macao bank, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told reporters Wednesday.
But Richardson, speaking in Seoul after a trip to the North, said it would require an "extraordinary effort" to meet Saturday's deadline under a February deal with regional powers to actually start decommissioning the reactor.
"The North Korean government told us that with that (bank) issue resolved, ... (it) would move promptly, within a day, after receiving the funds," said Richardson, who during his visit had met Pyongyang's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan.
"And therefore within that day, (North Korea will) invite the IAEA to Pyongyang and inspectors to draw up the terms for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor."
The return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, expelled in 2002, is part of the February 13 deal to give North Korea massive energy aid in return for ending its nuclear weapons program, starting with closure of the Yongbyong reactor its source of weapons-grade plutonium.
But Richardson said it could be some 30 days before the reactor begins shutting down.
"In an offhanded way, a North Korean official mentioned that perhaps 30 additional days would be needed because of the current delay over the BDA issue."
The United States said on Tuesday Macao authorities had unblocked about US$25 million of frozen North Korea funds at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in the southern Chinese city.
Richardson said he expected the bank to tell North Korea it could pick up its money later Wednesday or early today, meaning Pyongyang would send an invitation to the IAEA tomorrow.
North Korea has demanded that the funds, frozen in the Macao bank since 2005, be released first.
Analysts doubted that missing Saturday's deadline would derail the disarmament deal.
"The deadline will be postponed to some time in the future, but I don't think there will be any kind of fundamental damage to the agreement," said Ruan Zongze, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.
Richardson, accompanied by Anthony Principi, former US veterans affairs secretary and Victor Cha, top White House adviser on Korea, entered the Republic of Korea (ROK) from the North Wednesday after securing the remains of six American soldiers from the Korean War.
"Hopefully, we've done our bit to relieve the tension between our two countries," Richardson said after crossing the border, referring to the US and the North.
Wednesday the Americans drove two hours from North Korean capital Pyongyang, with the remains of the soldiers transported separately in small, black cases.
Principi said the mission to deliver the remains was one of the most emotional moments of his life.
"To participate in such a noble mission to bring home the remains of men who 50 years ago were in harm's way, and now they're home, it was really quite moving," he said.
More than 33,000 US troops died in the Korean War. Some 8,100 US servicemen still are listed as missing.
In 2005, the US government halted a separate cooperative program that permitted US military teams to excavate remains from North Korea battlefields, saying the North had created an unsafe environment. The program had recovered remains believed to be from 220 soldiers since 1996.
North Korea has no plans to resume the joint recovery operations, Richardson's Asian affairs adviser, K.A. "Tony" Namkung said.
(China Daily via agencies April 12, 2007)