- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SEOUL — A high-profile U.S. delegation said yesterday that North Korea had pledged to begin denuclearization steps by a Saturday deadline.

“The North Koreans said that upon release of Banco Delta Asia funds, which would be [Thursday] morning, they could invite an IAEA official the next day,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who arrived in Seoul after a four-day trip to Pyongyang. “That would be Friday, and we hope that will happen.”

North Korea expelled inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2002.

Under a Feb. 13 agreement reached at six-nation talks in Beijing, North Korea has until Saturday to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. It will receive energy aid in return.

Pyongyang has been insisting on the return of $25 million frozen in Macao-based Banco Delta Asia as a precondition to the shutdown.

The funds were frozen in 2005 as a result of Treasury Department charges that the bank laundered money and aided a North Korean effort to counterfeit U.S. currency.

“The U.S. has fulfilled all its obligations,” added Anthony Principi, a former U.S. secretary for veterans’ affairs and a member of the delegation.

Because of unexpected delays in the release of the Macao funds, there appears little likelihood that the reactor can be decommissioned as planned by this weekend.

But the Americans said that they had received assurances from North Korean officials that the first stage of denuclearization — the invitation of IAEA officials who would draft a dismantling plan — would go ahead.

“Now the ball is in North Korea’s court,” said Mr. Richardson, a Democratic presidential hopeful and former ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Richardson said that it would take several days to turn off the reactor.

In a parallel development, North Korean state press reported last night that Pyongyang’s parliament had fired the country’s prime minister, Pak Pong-ju, and replaced him with Transportation Minister Kim Yong-il.

The Supreme People’s Assembly session “relieved deputy Pak Pong-ju of premiership and elected deputy Kim Yong-il premier of the Cabinet of the DPRK [North Korea],” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The agency gave no explanation for the dismissal of Mr. Pak, 67, who had held the post since September 2003 and was theoretically the head of government.

It was not clear what impact, if any, the reshuffle would have on the delicately poised nuclear talks. All power in the reclusive communist state is vested with leader Kim Jong-il, son of the nation’s founding father and the focus of a vast personality cult.

In another development, the U.S. delegation left North Korea with the remains of six allied soldiers from the Korean War.

The remains will be flown to the United States for DNA testing and identification.

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