SEOUL -- North Korea yesterday invited UN nuclear inspectors to the country for a meeting on methods for shutting down its main nuclear reactor.
It was the first concrete sign of a breakthrough in a stalemate over the atomic program, as the transfer of frozen North Korean funds at the center of the impasse neared completion.
The North sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, inviting inspectors to discuss shutting the reactor now that "it is confirmed that the process of defreezing the funds . . . at Banco Delta Asia in Macau has reached its final phase," the country's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
It said a "working-level delegation" from the UN nuclear watchdog was invited to the IAEA's verification and monitoring of the Yongbyon reactor's shutdown.
IAEA spokesman Ayhan Evrensel in Vienna said the agency had not yet received a letter from North Korea and declined to comment or offer a timetable for the possible return of inspectors.
The White House yesterday welcomed the development. Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said it was a step toward "the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."
North Korea had refused to act on its February pledge to disarm until it got access to $25 million once frozen in a US-blacklisted Macau bank. The United States has accused Banco Delta Asia of helping North Korea's government pass fake $100 bills and launder money from weapons sales.
Claiming the financial freeze was a sign of Washington's hostility, North Korea boycotted international nuclear talks for more than a year. It conducted its first-ever atomic bomb test in October.
Signs of a breakthrough in the standoff emerged last week as the North Korean funds at the Macau bank finally began to be transferred.
US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said earlier yesterday that a technical matter was holding up the final transfer, but assured the issue would probably be resolved by tomorrow.
Once the North Koreans get the money, "we hope they will get on with what they need to do in terms of implementing the February agreement," Hill said.
Although the timing of the next round of six-party talks is up to the host country, China, Hill said he expected them to be held in early July. However, he said it was important for North Korea to fulfill its obligations for the first phase of the disarmament agreement before the next meeting.
The first phase requires the North to shut down its reactor and invite IAEA inspectors to the country.
In the next phase, North Korea is required to make a complete declaration to the IAEA and other parties about its nuclear program before dismantling the reactor. As a reward, the country would ultimately get aid worth 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil along with other political concessions. South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Chun Yung-woo, said his country would monitor "how the discussions between North Korea and the IAEA proceed" and then put the shipment process in motion.
To win the North's promise to start dismantling its nuclear program, the United States agreed to allow North Korean funds at the Macau bank to be freed. But the transfer has taken months as the North insisted that it be sent electronically to another bank, apparently to prove that the money is now clean.
Several media reports have said the money would be sent through the US Federal Reserve branch in New York and then to Russia's central bank, before arriving in North Korean accounts in Russia's Far East.
On Thursday, Macau's chief finance official said the money had been transferred from Banco Delta Asia, but it remained unclear whether the entire amount had moved. Officials knowledgeable about the transfer have said more than $23 million was involved. In addition to the United States, the two Koreas, and Russia, other participants in the six-party talks are China and Japan.
In exchange for fuel oil, North Korea agreed to close its plutonium reactor as a first step to disarmament. When it missed the April 14 deadline to shut the plant, it cited delays in retrieving the frozen funds.
The February disarmament accord calls for North Korea to get 50,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil after the reactor is shut, in addition to economic aid equivalent to an additional 950,000 tons if it fully dismantles the nuclear program. Analysts have said Pyongyang has been inclined to prolong the nuclear talks because it sees the emerging nuclear program as its only leverage for dealing with world powers.