North Korea will invite international nuclear inspectors to return to the country within a day of receiving the frozen funds that have vexed disarmament talks, a US state governor said on Wednesday after meeting officials in Pyongyang.
Bill Richardson of New Mexico said that, with the disputed $25m (€18.7m, £12.7m) now returned to accounts at Macao’s Banco Delta Asia, Pyongyang was likely to issue the invitation this week, at least making a gesture towards a 60-day deadline laid out in a February denuclearisation agreement.
“The North Korean government told us that, with that issue resolved, [it] would move promptly – within a day after receiving the funds – to invite the International Atomic Energy Agency to Pyongyang to draw up the terms for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor,” Mr Richardson told reporters in Seoul Wednesday. The IAEA will oversee the shutdown of the reactor, north of Pyongyang.
The US had pledged to release the funds linked to North Korea, frozen 18 months ago amid allegations of counterfeiting and money laundering, within 30 days of the February 13 denuclearisation agreement, but technical issues bogged down the transfer of the money.
But because Washington missed its deadline, Pyongyang had refused to comply with the requirement to shut down Yongbyon and provide a list of its nuclear programmes within a 60-day deadline, which falls on Saturday.
Authorities announced on Tuesday that the money had been returned to the original accounts at BDA in Macao and the account holders were free to collect it. A BDA spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the funds had been unfrozen and that they were already being moved, although he declined to provide details.
“Now the ball is in North Korea’s court to take the next important steps,” Mr Richardson said after a visit primarily aimed at repatriating from North Korea the remains of US soldiers killed during the 1950-53 war.
Mr Richardson and his delegation travelled with the remains through the heavily fortified demilitarised zone into South Korea on Wednesday. The delegation included Anthony Principi, former veterans affairs secretary for President George W. Bush. The remains will be flown to Hawaii Thursday.
It is understood that IAEA inspectors are ready to return to Pyongyang imminently to discuss the shutdown.
After discussing details of the inspections with North Korean officials, the pair would have to return to Vienna for the watchdog’s board to rubber-stamp the decision to operate in a non-IAEA country.
Additional reporting by Robin Kwong in Hong Kong