North Korea failed to meet a Saturday deadline for shutting down its main nuclear reactor, with a key United States official saying that the failure was draining momentum from a disarmament plan for the North.
The United States and other governments involved in six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program called on Pyongyang to abide by the two-month-old agreement that set a timetable for its nuclear disarmament.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief US negotiator, sounded a worried note that continued North Korean foot-dragging could imperil the disarmament plan.
"We don't have a lot of momentum right now. That is for sure," Hill told reporters before conferring with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, after meetings earlier in the week with South Korean and Japanese negotiators.
Saturday's missed deadline marked the latest setback for an agreement that when reached in February offered the prospect of disarming the world's newest declared nuclear power. North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb in October.
Under the original timetable -- agreed to by China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, as well as the US and North Korea -- Pyongyang was to shut down its main reactor at Yongbyon and a nuclear processing facility while UN inspectors were to verify the shutdown, all within 60 days. North Korea was to have received 50,000 tons of oil in return.
But the timetable was tripped up by a dispute over North Korean deposits frozen in a tiny Macau bank blacklisted by Washington for allegedly abetting money-laundering and counterfeiting.
North Korea refused to make any move until the funds issue was resolved. Though Hill promised to resolve the issue by mid-March, it proved more complicated. Finally this past week Washington said that the funds were fully available.
Asked by reporters whether North Korea's intransigence was retaliation for the delay in unfreezing the funds, Hill declined to speculate, but said now that the issue was resolved Pyongyang had to display its commitment to disarm.
"I think there is a very strongly held view, a consensus among the partners, that the North Koreans got what they wanted through the February 13 agreement and now it is time for them to fulfill their part. That seems only fair," Hill said.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry, in a statement released by the government news agency, said Friday that it would carry out its side of the agreement "when the lifting of the sanction is proved to be a reality."
Officials in South Korea, a staunch supporter of rapprochement with North Korea, and in Japan, which is wary of Pyongyang's intentions, both played down the failure to meet the 60-day deadline but instead called on the North to meet its commitment. South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, said Pyongyang would not be punished for missing the timetable.
"What is important is whether there is any wavering in political will," Chun said in a telephone interview.
Hill said he would chart possible next steps with his Chinese counterpart and then talk by telephone with the other negotiators. Monetary authorities in Macau and executives with the bank, Banco Delta Asia, could not be reached for comment Saturday to see if North Korea had removed any of the US$25 million (euro18.6 million) in deposits that were frozen in September 2005.