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U.S.: N. Korea Nuke Talks "Still On Track"

International nuclear talks are still on track despite a boycott by Pyongyang on Tuesday over $25 million in North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank, the chief U.S. delegate said.

The North's main negotiator refused to participate in a meeting of top envoys earlier Tuesday until all the money was released, Japan's representative said.

But Christopher Hill, the American delegate, characterized the day's progress as "kind of slow" but expressed optimism that the issues would be resolved.

"I think we're still on track," Hill told reporters late Tuesday.

The talks among the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and host China resumed Monday shortly after the United States announced that a key sticking point — the North Korean deposits frozen in Macau's Banco Delta Asia — had been resolved.

Earlier, Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae said the day's meeting was canceled because Pyongyang refused to participate.

"There was no progress at all today," Sasae said. "China, as chairman (of the talks), urged North Korea to come to the table but they would not come."

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

U.S. Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser announced Monday that the money would be transferred to a North Korean account in Beijing. The Monetary Authority of Macau, a Chinese territory, said it would release the funds "in accordance with the instructions of the account holders," but did not give any details.

It was not immediately clear whether there had been a delay or how long it would take for the transfer to be completed. Michelle Wai, an official with Macau's Monetary Authority, said Tuesday she had no information on when the funds would be released.

"According to China, North Korea said they will not come to join further discussions until they confirm that their money got into their bank account in China," Sasae said.

But a South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said he did not expect the problem to linger.

"These issues are expected to be resolved as early as tonight or tomorrow morning. We expect to begin substantial negotiations tomorrow," he said.

The dispute comes as the six parties are trying to fine-tune a timetable for North Korea's disarmament under a hard-won Feb. 13 agreement that gave Pyongyang 60 days to shut down its main reactor and plutonium processing plant and allow U.N. monitors to verify the closures.

In return, North Korea is to receive energy and economic assistance and a start toward normalizing relations with the U.S. and Japan.

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.

Before the talks stalled on Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top American envoy, said the delegates would discuss details of those energy deliveries.

South Korea has promised to deliver an initial 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea coinciding with the arrival of U.N. inspectors to verify that the Yongbyon reactor has been shut down.

Hill said further deliveries would be contingent on what the inspectors find in North Korea.

The South Korean official said both Hill and Lim Sung-nam, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's task force on the North Korean nuclear issue, met separately with their North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, on Tuesday.

"North Korea reaffirmed its commitment to fully implementing the Feb. 13 agreement," the official said of the Hill meeting, adding Kim told Chun he "expected things to go well" regarding the frozen funds.

There was no other immediate confirmation of the meetings.

The negotiations 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 1980s before taking steps to improve relations.

On Tuesday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said Japan should drop the abduction issue and instead apologize and compensate North Korea for its 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea.

Japan has said it will not contribute energy assistance to North Korea until there is progress on the abduction issue, but KCNA said the North does not want Japanese aid.

North Korea "has never asked Japan for any assistance and it has no idea of getting any help from it, either," it said.

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