April 10, 2007 / 1:13 AM / 12 years ago

U.S. says North Korea may not meet nuclear deadline

TOKYO (Reuters) - The top U.S. negotiator with North Korea said on Monday it was becoming difficult for Pyongyang to meet a mid-April deadline to close a nuclear reactor, but Washington would not accept a partial shutdown.

Christopher Hill (L), U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, and his Japanese counterpart Kenichiro Sasae are surrounded by the media after their talks at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, April 9, 2007. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill urged Pyongyang to implement a nuclear disarmament agreement regardless of a dispute over the transfer of frozen funds to North Korea.

“Clearly we are aiming for a complete fulfilment of the February agreement and we’d like to get it done by day 60,” Hill said, referring to the February 13 agreement that gave the North 60 days to shut its nuclear facilities in return for energy aid.

“But obviously that timeline is becoming difficult, but certainly there is no such thing as partial,” added Hill, when asked if a partial shutdown of the reactor would be acceptable.

Hill, the top U.S. negotiator on North Korea’s nuclear programme, met Japanese officials later on Monday. He is to have more talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in Seoul on Tuesday and Wednesday and in Beijing on Thursday and Friday.

North Korea walked out of six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme last month when the transfer of $25 million (12.8 million pounds) in funds held at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau failed to go through.

Japan’s top government spokesman said the fund dispute should not hold up implementation of the February agreement among the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

“The BDA issue is outside the framework of the six-party talks. They cannot make that an excuse not to abide by the 30- or the 60-day deadlines. We need to resume the six-party process,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.

The U.S. State Department last week said the United States had found a way for the frozen funds to be transferred to North Korea, but on Monday appeared less certain this may resolve the dispute, saying there may be other ways to settle the matter.

“That pathway was valid and it certainly could work,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“I’m sure that there are other ways that this could get done,” he added, saying it was up to North Korean, Chinese and Macanese authorities to decide how to handle the funds, which were frozen after U.S. authorities designated the Macau bank a “primary money-laundering concern” in September 2005.

U.S. LAWMAKERS IN PYONGYANG

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who heads a delegation of U.S. lawmakers visiting Pyongyang, said separately he believed the North was ready to end its nuclear weapons programme and improve ties with the United States.

“I believe for the first time they do want to enter into an agreement with the six-party countries and they want a better relationship with the United States,” Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate who also visited North Korea in the 1990s and in 2005, told U.S. broadcaster NBC.

“They know that the key is dismantling their nuclear weapons.”

But one of the potential candidates to be South Korea’s next president said on Monday that North Korea was becoming more of a threat by dragging out the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons programme.

“Time only serves to turn North Korea’s weapon development into a fait accompli,” Park Geun-hye, daughter of the country’s longest-serving president, told foreign reporters.

“It is quite worrying for many Koreans that the February 13 agreement does not explicitly mention the North’s existing nuclear weapons and nuclear material,” Park added.

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul and Arshad Mohammed in Washington

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