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Stalled N. Korea Talks Annoying Envoys

Delegates at talks on disarming North Korea's nuclear program voiced impatience Wednesday that the negotiations remained stalled for a second day over a dispute on when $25 million of Pyongyang's funds will be released from a Macau bank.

North Korea said it would not take part in the six-party negotiations in China's capital to meet goals outlined in a landmark Feb. 13 disarmament agreement until the money was transferred.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said it was upsetting that no talks had taken place while the problem is being resolved.

"While these forms have been filled out and faxes sent and bank rules examined, while that's going on, our nuclear talks have not made progress. So there has been a real opportunity cost to this delay," he told reporters.

But he was confident North Korea was still committed to the process, having "made clear on several occasions, including yesterday, that they will live up to the February agreement."

Envoys to talks extended their meeting Wednesday in an effort to overcome the financial dispute. Host China asked representatives from the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia to stay on to fine-tune ways to meet goals outlined in the Feb. 13 agreement.

"Obviously, it needs to get sorted out in a fairly timely way because we, as I've said many times, we don't want to lose these deadlines," Hill said. "We have a very good plan for 60 days, I think elements of a good plan for the next phase, so I would like to get moving on that."

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the delegates would meet later Wednesday to decide if they would continue the round.

(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korea's representative was more indignant in voicing his party's annoyance with the North's boycott: "I don't know why we should waste our time waiting for the obstacle to be cleared," said Chun Yung-woo, seen at left.

The talks have also been complicated by Pyongyang's strained ties with Tokyo.

North Korea is upset at Japan's insistence that the two nations settle issues related to Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s before taking steps to improve relations.

Chun said the Japanese delegation was considering leaving if the situation didn't change, adding that "there is no realistic method to convince North Korea to take a practical attitude."

Planned group talks were called off on Tuesday, with some participants holding bilateral meetings instead, when North Korea said it would not take part until the money was in its account.

North Korea boycotted the six-nation talks for more than a year after Washington blacklisted the tiny, privately run Banco Delta Asia on suspicion the funds were connected to money-laundering or counterfeiting.

But U.S. officials announced Monday that the money would be transferred to a North Korean account in Beijing, saying it was up to the Monetary Authority of Macau, a Chinese territory, to release the funds.

Chun said the transfer has run into "minor technical problems," but he did not give any details.

Macau Monetary Authority spokeswoman Wendy Au declined to comment on what was causing the delay.

"It's got to get solved, I am sure it will be solved," Hill said. "But it is not my issue. It is not a U.S. issue at this point... the problem is, you can't expect all these large delegations to sit around while it is being sorted out."

The Monetary Authority has also declined to say if it will announce when the funds have been released. "I have no instructions from my superiors regarding when the money will be transferred," Wendy Au, a spokeswoman for the authority, said Wednesday.

Bank spokesman Joe Wong said the money remains frozen and that the bank hasn't been ordered by the authority to release the funds.

Despite the growing tensions, Japan's chief delegate, Kenichiro Sasae, said he was still optimistic of progress once the transfer dispute was resolved.

"As soon as the current problem, which is merely a technical issue, is resolved, I believe things will start moving forward," Sasae told reporters.

The setback comes as the delegates are trying to fine-tune a timetable for North Korea's disarmament under the February agreement.

Under the deal, North Korea is to receive energy and economic assistance and a start toward normalizing relations with the U.S. and Japan, in return for beginning the disarmament process.

North Korea would ultimately receive assistance equivalent to 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil if it fully discloses and dismantles all its nuclear programs.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon told an alumni meeting of Seoul National University that "North Korea is a difficult counterpart to understand," according to his office.

"Diplomacy is choosing between a debacle and an unsatisfactory outcome. We cannot have something completely satisfactory," Song said.

Meanwhile, a South Korean aid group says seven out of ten North Koreans probably don't have enough food to eat.

North Korea has relied on foreign food aid since the mid-1990s, when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy. A famine is estimated to have killed some two million people.

The Seoul-based Good Friends aid agency said there are concerns that residents of cities who do not receive regular wages or rations and have no farmable land could begin to starve. The agency got its information from the communist nation's distribution offices.

While there have not been many deaths, malnutrition is worsening.

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