- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

SEOUL — North Korea invited U.N. nuclear inspectors yesterday in the first concrete sign of a breakthrough in a stalemate over its atomic program, as the transfer of frozen North Korean funds at the center of the impasse neared completion.

The North sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), inviting inspectors to discuss shutting down its main nuclear reactor, as “it is confirmed that the process of de-freezing the funds … at Banco Delta Asia in Macao has reached its final phase,” the country’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

It said a “working-level delegation” from the U.N. nuclear watchdog was invited to verify and monitor the Yongbyon reactor’s shutdown.

IAEA spokesman Ayhan Evrensel in Vienna, Austria, said the agency had not received a letter from North Korea, and declined to comment further or offer a timetable for a return of inspectors.

The White House welcomed the development. Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said it is a step toward “the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

North Korea had refused to act on its February pledge to disarm until it received access to $25 million once frozen in a U.S.-blacklisted Macao bank. Washington accused Banco Delta Asia of helping North Korea’s government pass fake $100 bills and launder money from weapons sales.

Claiming the financial freeze was a sign of Washington’s hostility, North Korea boycotted international nuclear talks for more than a year. It conducted its first-ever atomic bomb test in October.

Signs of a breakthrough in the standoff emerged this week as the North Korean funds at the Macao bank began to be transferred.

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said earlier yesterday that a technical glitch was holding up the final transfer, but assured that the issue likely would be resolved by tomorrow.

Once the North Koreans get the money, “we hope they will get on with what they need to do in terms of implementing the February agreement,” Mr. Hill said.

Although the timing of the next round of six-party talks is up to the host country, China, Mr. Hill said he expected them to be held early next month. Besides the United States, the two Koreas and China, other participants in the talks are Russia and Japan.

Mr. Hill said it was important for North Korea to fulfill its obligations for the first phase of the disarmament agreement before the next meeting.

The first phase requires the North to shut down its reactor and invite IAEA inspectors.

In the next phase, North Korea is required to make a complete declaration to the IAEA and other parties about its nuclear program before dismantling the reactor. As a reward, the country ultimately would get aid in the form of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil along with other political concessions.

South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Chun Yung-woo, said his country will monitor “how the discussions between North Korea and the IAEA proceed” and then put the shipment process into motion.

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