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North Korean Bank Funds Unfrozen Ahead of Nuclear Deadline

The United States said that Macao authorities have unblocked funds in frozen North Korean accounts, and told Pyongyang it must now start shutting down a nuclear reactor days before a deadline.

The reclusive state has insisted it will only close the reactor, which supplies it with weapons-grade plutonium, once $25 million dollars in funds linked to North Korean interests and frozen since 2005 in Macau's Banco Delta Asia are freed.

Under an international deal agreed two months ago to end its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has until Saturday to start shutting down its Yongbyon atomic plant.

"I will let the Macanese authorities speak to how they want to put it but the bottom line is that they have unblocked these accounts and the account holders can -- authorized account holders can -- withdraw the funds from those accounts," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.

A Macau Monetary Authority official said only that there would be an announcement of some kind within a "few days."

The funds were frozen after Washington accused the Macau bank of being involved in money laundering.

Furious that the money still had not been freed, North Korea walked out of a round of six-country talks on its nuclear program in March, five months after its first atomic test.

'Now We Need To Move On'

The U.S. announcement came as top U.S. officials visited both sides of the divided Korean peninsula.

"I think we've reached a very important day today with the imminent release of these funds," chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill said in Seoul.

"Now we need to move on from this banking issue to the real purpose of our February agreement, which is to get on with denuclearization."

On Monday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson flew to North Korea where he is to receive the remains of six U.S. soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.

NBC television reported North Korean officials had told Richardson that once the money was released, U.N. nuclear inspectors, expelled in 2002, would be allowed back in.

A Feb. 13 agreement between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States gave Pyongyang 60 days to shut its nuclear facilities in return for energy aid.