THE WASHINGTON TIMES North Korea yesterday put on hold a planned visit to Pyongyang by U.N. nuclear inspectors just hours after top U.S. negotiator Christopher R. Hill touched down in Pyongyang — the first senior Bush administration official to visit the reclusive communist state in nearly five years.
"We hope that we can make up for some of the time that we lost this spring, and so I'm looking forward to good discussions about that. We want to get the six-party process moving," Mr. Hill said as he arrived.
The administration had until recently refused to talk directly to Pyongyang, saying it did not trust Kim Jong-il and accused his government of trying to extort rewards in negotiations to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
But the State Department yesterday portrayed Mr. Hill's visit as a natural step for the U.S.
"Talking and dialogue is not a reward," spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington. "It's a part of the process. It's part of what you do in diplomacy."
The visit, marking the latest U.S. attempt to woo North Korea back to six-nation talks after a two-year hiatus, met an obstacle yesterday.
Mr. Hill left Pyongyang early today for Seoul, where he was scheduled to brief South Korean officials. He also was to continue on to Tokyo to deliver a similar briefing.
In delaying the U.N. inspectors' visit, North Korea said it had not received $25 million from a Macao bank, which U.S., Macanese and Russian officials claimed had been transferred at least a week ago.
"Our side has informed the IAEA that we have no objection to them preparing the visit as a plan, but we are not ready to give our official confirmation for the visit as scheduled by the agency," said diplomat Hyon Yong-man at the North Korean Embassy in Vienna, Austria, where the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based.
Mr. McCormack said he had seen the reports about the delay of a visit by IAEA inspectors but could not confirm them through official channels.
North Korea has boycotted the talks since 2005, when the U.S. Treasury Department froze North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia in Macao, claiming they were tainted by drug running, money laundering and counterfeiting.
The North has since kicked out IAEA inspectors and detonated a nuclear device in an underground test. Its single nuclear reactor continues to run, processing fuel for atomic bombs.
In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak said yesterday the $25 million was being transferred to a Russian bank where the North has accounts "as we speak" and "everything is normal."
The Washington Times reported last month that a trip by Mr. Hill was likely to take place soon, despite recent statements by Mr. Hill that he would not go until the nuclear reactor had been shut down.
The six nations — the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and North Korea — signed an agreement in February to begin dismantling the North's nuclear weapons programs in exchange for political and economic rewards, provided the frozen Macao funds were freed up.
Mr. Hill's trip had been approved not only by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Cheney has been skeptical of Miss Rice's accommodating approach to North Korea.
Mr. McCormack said Mr. Hill flew to Pyongyang yesterday morning on a U.S. government plane from Tokyo.
The envoy held talks with his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan. Mr. McCormack said Mr. Hill would meet with Kim Jong-il if such a visit could be arranged.