N Korea hints nuclear deal is safe

A Japanese newspaper widely viewed as an unofficial mouthpiece for Pyongyang on Friday welcomed the end of a US Treasury investigation into alleged money laundering by a Macao bank, calling it an “epochal event”.

In the first clue to how North Korea would react to the US Treasury decision this week, the newspaper, Choson Sinbo, which is linked to an association of North Koreans living in Japan, said US action over Banco Delta Asia this week was “a very positive sign”.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury said it had evidence of widespread wrongdoing at the Macao bank and formally banned US companies from doing business with it. The move was seen by some analysts as a potential threat to a February 13 deal that would see North Korea dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for energy aid.

Pyongyang has remained silent about the US action, which drew mixed reactions from countries involved in the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme. In the past, Choson Sinbo has been a fairly reliable guide of Pyongyang’s thinking.

The newspaper said: “We can call this a truly epochal event because the most arrogant and violent regime ever in the US [acted] as if it were kneeling before a small country in the east.”

It said the decision to hand responsibility for frozen accounts over to the Macao authorities demonstrated the US “will carry out” its part of a February agreement to scrap North Korea’s nuclear ­programme.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Christopher Hill, the lead US negotiator in the talks, said the US would explain details of its findings to the Koreans.

That could be done in a matter of days and Mr Hill said he still expected North Korea to shut its Yongbyon nuclear reactor within the next month, as called for under the February agreement.

“We are on schedule,” he said. “I think we are in good shape.”

Beijing on Thursday expressed “deep regret” over the Treasury decision to ban US banks from doing business with Banco Delta Asia. In Japan, by contrast, the Treasury’s action has been widely, if privately, portrayed as a weakening of the sanctions regime and a green light to other banks to do business with Pyongyang.

Stanley Au, chairman of Banco Delta Asia’s parent company, yesterday denied that the bank was involved in illegal activity, saying it “never knowingly received any illegal transactions from our customers”.

“We have a clean bill of health,” he said, citing the results of an investigation commissioned by Macao’s Monetary Authority. The bank had ceased all relationships with its North Korean clients since September 2005, when Washington accused the bank of being a money-launderer.

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