Friday, May 18, 2007

Senior negotiators in the six-party talks with North Korea — including U.S. representative Christopher R. Hill — are considering a visit to Pyongyang soon after it shuts down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, diplomats said yesterday.

Although no trip has been scheduled, they said, the visit would take place in conjunction with the next round of six-party talks in Beijing, probably next month.

The North Koreans are delaying Yongbyon’s closure until they receive $25 million that was frozen in a Macao bank in 2005. An American bank, Wachovia, said yesterday that it had agreed to consider accepting the transfer.

“There are no [concrete] plans for a trip to Pyongyang at this time,” a U.S. official said. “But at some point, after the North Koreans shut Yongbyon down, the Chinese will call a six-party meeting, and if [the delegates] decide to go to Pyongyang, they will go to Pyongyang.”

Any visit to the North Korean capital by an American official is rare and could be used by officials there to further their pursuit of international legitimacy.

Mr. Hill, the U.S. negotiator, told The Washington Times last year that he would not rule out a visit to Pyongyang but said he would not go while the Yongbyon reactor was operating.

“We would consider a trip if it would serve our interest to do so,” he said. “But our concern is that North Korea is continuing to run a nuclear reactor whose purpose is to make bombs and to be talking to them while they are making bombs doesn’t appear to be in our interest.”

As part of a deal concluded in February with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, the North agreed to close and seal the reactor by April 14.

Washington, in turn, promised to “resolve” the financial issue. But even though it allowed Macao’s Banco Delta Asia to release the money, the North Koreans said they would do nothing until the funds are transferred safely to an account in a third country.

The State Department spent weeks trying to find a bank anywhere in the world, beginning with China, but none agreed to accept the $25 million, which the Treasury Department has labeled “dirty” because of links to money laundering. The Treasury had barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing with Banco Delta Asia.

The Washington Times reported last week that the State Department found an American bank that was willing to accept the funds.

Wachovia acknowledged yesterday that it had agreed to consider accepting the funds and would be “fully compliant with all U.S government-imposed sanctions involving North Korea.”

“We take any request for assistance from our government seriously and endeavor to cooperate whenever possible,” said spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown. “Wachovia complies with all laws and regulations and would not agree to any request without appropriate approvals from our regulators.”

In her statement, she referred to “an interbank transfer of funds held at other banks.” Asked whether the money would be coming from banks other than Banco Delta Asia, she declined to comment. Diplomats said Banco Delta Asia was the only bank involved in the transaction.

State Department officials said they are trying to sort out all the legal issues under the USA Patriot Act associated with transferring North Korean money linked to terrorism financing to a U.S. bank.

Officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. made the decision, which in effect provides North Korea — labeled a state-sponsor of terrorism — full access to the international financial system.

Miss Rice’s purpose, they said, was to remove what Pyongyang says is the only remaining obstacle to shutting down Yongbyon. Mr. Paulson is said to have agreed with Miss Rice because he does not want to risk his good relations with Chinese officials.

Mr. Hill told the Korea Society in New York this week that Washington would not let the $25 million stand in the way of the nuclear deal.

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