North Korea says it will start moves to shut its nuclear reactor within a day of receiving millions of dollars blocked for 18 months in a Macau bank, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told reporters on Wednesday.
But Richardson, speaking in Seoul after a trip to the North, said it would require an "extraordinary effort" to meet Saturday's deadline under a February deal with regional powers to actually start decommissioning the reactor.
"The North Korean government told us that with that (bank) issue resolved ... (it) would move promptly, within a day, after receiving the funds," said Richardson, who during his visit had met Pyongyang's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan.
"And therefore within that day, (North Korea will) invite the IAEA to Pyongyang and inspectors to draw up the terms for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor."
The return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, expelled in 2002, is part of the February 13 deal to give the impoverished state massive energy aid in return for ending its nuclear weapons program, starting with closure of the Yongbyong reactor -- its source of weapons-grade plutonium.
But Richardson said it could be some 30 days before the reactor begins shutting down.
"In an offhanded way, a DPRK (North Korean) official mentioned that perhaps 30 additional days would be needed because of the current delay over the BDA issue."
The United States said on Tuesday Macau authorities had unblocked about $25 million of frozen North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in the southern Chinese city.
Richardson said he expected the bank to tell North Korea it could pick up its money later on Wednesday or early on Thursday, meaning Pyongyang would send an invitation to the IAEA on Friday.
The impoverished state has demanded that the funds, frozen in the Macau bank since 2005, be released first.
Analysts doubted that missing Saturday's deadline would derail the disarmament deal.
"The deadline will be postponed to some time in the future, but I don't think there will be any kind of fundamental damage to the agreement," said Ruan Zongze, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.
The New Mexico governor, who crossed into the South on Wednesday, had gone to North Korea earlier this week to collect the remains of six US soldiers killed during the Korean War.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because the truce which halted the 1950-53 conflict never led to a peace treaty.
BDA officials in Macau declined to comment on whether the funds had been transferred or whether North Korea had been in contact.
US chief negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, told reporters in Seoul he considered the bank issue resolved.
"We think now it is really an important time to get on with the ever-urgent task of denuclearisation, and particularly get on with the implementation of the February agreement," he said.
"So I would hope this would happen in a matter of days."
The apparent breakthrough came as several key players in the North Korea issue visited Seoul, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
China is the closest isolated North Korea has to an ally, but relations were strained after Pyongyang defied the international community last October with its first nuclear test.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said in talks with Wen and his Chinese counterpart Li Zhaoxing they had welcomed the US move to unblock North Korean bank accounts.
"The door to resolving the problem is now open in the way the North wanted, so the North must take positive steps and go beyond that so that we can implement the February 13 agreement," Song said.