A U.S. nuclear negotiator expressed hope that North Korea could take initial steps toward dismantling its nuclear program.
The optimism from Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill comes after the U.S. Treasury Department said authorities in the Chinese-administered region of Macau are prepared to unblock the frozen funds that North Korea says are the reason it has refused to implement a disarmament agreement.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Tuesday that Macau authorities have made the funds available for withdrawal, citing remarks by a spokeswoman for the Monetary Authority of Macau.
A call to a spokesman of Banco Delta Asia, where the funds are being held, was not immediately returned Tuesday. The bank had been blacklisted by Washington for allegedly helping the North launder money and its North Korean accounts were frozen. The bank has denied any wrongdoing.
"It's obviously a big step that I think should clear the way for the (North) to step up the process of dealing with its obligations within the 60-day period," Hill said in Seoul, referring to a Saturday deadline under a February agreement where North Korea pledged to shut down its main atomic reactor in exchange for energy aid and political concessions.
South Korean nuclear envoy Chun Young-woo, speaking with Hill, said all North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia had been unblocked.
"This means North Korean account holders can withdraw the money in all of the accounts," Chun said.
He added later that the hold on the accounts would be lifted Wednesday morning.
The Macau monetary authority spokeswoman, Wendy Au, told Kyodo News that the funds had been unblocked.
"The account holders or authorized parties can go to the bank and withdraw or deal with their deposits," Au said.
Later, McCormack referred to the Kyodo report and said: "We don't have any doubts that this is, in fact, what they have done."
He said it could take "anywhere from a weeks onwards" for the North Koreans to shut down the nuclear facilities at Yongbyan.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to grant the North Koreans an extension under the circumstances, McCormack said, "Let's take a look at where we are on Saturday."
After meeting in Seoul with China's nuclear envoy, Chun said China also believed the move would help advance the disarmament process and that the North had no reason to reject it.
If North Korea follows through with its promises, they would be the first moves the communist state has made to scale back its nuclear development since it kicked out international inspectors and in 2003 restarted its sole operating nuclear reactor.
But the hard-won agreement, reached four months after North Korea rattled the world by testing a nuclear device, has been held up by a dispute over North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank.
Victor Cha, President Bush's top adviser on North