STEVE INSKEEP, host:
North Korea faces a deadline on Saturday. It's a deadline to shut down a nuclear reactor. It's supposed to happen after North Korea got a benefit. Millions of dollars in North Korean assets had been frozen in a bank outside the country, and now they'd been freed according to the U.S.
The lead American negotiator on North Korean issues is Christopher Hill. He's an assistant secretary of state. We've reached him in Seoul, South Korea. Welcome back to the program.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State): Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: Basic question first. Is North Korea going to meet this deadline?
Mr. HILL: Well, I tell you, it's tough. It's already Thursday afternoon here, and we still don't have any indication from North Koreans that they've yet invited the inspectors in. And that's a key element that has to be accomplished in order to, you know, get the reactor shut down. So…
INSKEEP: They can't just say we're shutting it down. You have to see it. Inspectors have to see it.
Mr. HILL: Well, we need inspectors there. They need to be part of this process, part of the sealing process. Now, the good news is they recently have a visitor there, Governor Richardson. And the North Koreans made clear that they are prepared to go ahead with this. But they keep saying they need this bank issue resolved.
And the trouble is it is resolved, I mean, the money has been returned. It's available. And so, it's a little puzzling to us that they say they need it resolved, because it is resolved.
INSKEEP: You mentioned New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, who was there to collect remains from the Korean War. But said the North Koreans also told him that they wanted 30 days.
Mr. HILL: Actually, I think what he said was the North Koreans said once they get going on this, it could be done within 30 days. It's unclear how many days it would really take. But that's getting a little ahead of us. What we need to put them to do is to get going on it, starting with a phone call to Vienna to get these international nuclear inspectors in.
INSKEEP: Well, is North Korea likely to face consequences if it misses the deadline?
Mr. HILL: Well, you know, this is a very tough agreement to reach - this agreement in February. We're trying to implement this overall agreement in principle that was reached 18 months ago. And you recall the North Koreans actually boycotted the whole process for all of 18 months because of this bank issue.
So the bank issue was resolved a couple of days ago. We think that's enough time for them to see their money, and they ought to get moving.
INSKEEP: We should explain this bank issue for people who don't follow this closely. North Korea had assets outside the country. The United States arranged for some of them to be frozen on a bank in Macau - $25 million. And you're saying that they could withdraw that money now at any time?
Mr. HILL: Well, let me explain very clearly. The U.S. had a problem with the way this bank was operating. This bank was allowing its depositors, including North Korean depositors, to do things that are simply not proper according to any bank's due diligence.
So what happened was the U.S. designated this bank of concern as to money laundering, and informed U.S. banks to be careful, and essentially not to deal with this bank. In the meantime, the Macau authorities then moved on their own to administratively freeze the North Korean accounts.
So what has happened in the last few days is the United States supported the decision of the Macau authorities to unfreeze those accounts. And now that they're unfrozen, they are available to their depositors. Now we've had some serious discussions with the North Koreans about the need to make sure this money doesn't go back to nefarious people for nefarious purposes.
INSKEEP: Do you think you have found North Koreans you can look in the eye and trust?
Mr. HILL: Well, I think there are people we can talk to seriously, where we can layout some ideas or how to go forward, where they will layout some ideas, and we can rely on what they say that they will do what they say. So if that's what you mean by trust, I guess there are.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Hill, good to talk with you again.
Mr. HILL: Thank you.
INSKEEP: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in Seoul, South Korea.
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