SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea said Wednesday it would return to nuclear disarmament talks in an effort to get access to frozen overseas bank accounts, a vital source of hard currency for the impoverished and isolated communist nation.
The North's Foreign Ministry make only indirect mention of its headline-grabbing atomic test last month, saying in a statement that it hoped to resolve U.S. financial restrictions by going back to six-nation arms talks that it has boycotted for a year.
Confirming U.S. and Chinese reports of the agreement Tuesday, the North's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang decided to return to the arms talks "on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the (North) and the U.S. within the framework of the six-party talks."
Washington had banned transactions between American financial institutions and Banco Delta Asia SARL - a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau - saying it was being used by North Korea for money-laundering.
U.S. officials also sought to rally other countries to prevent the North from doing business abroad, saying all transactions involving Pyongyang were suspected of being involved in counterfeiting and money laundering.
The Macau ban is believed to have blocked the North's access to some US$24 million (euro18.9 million), and is thought to have hit the country's leadership in particular, who indulge in luxury goods like cognac and fine wines while the vast majority of North Koreans live in poverty.
In Seoul, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said Wednesday he expects leaders of the countries involved to discuss the issue when they gather in Vietnam for an Asia-Pacific summit in mid-November and that the six-party talks were expected to take place after that. He did not indicate when.
However, South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was quoted as saying by Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency that the talks could resume as early as this month.
Ban, who will be the next U.N. secretary-general, also said sanctions against the North would remain in place until the six-nation talks make progress, and that Pyongyang must halt all nuclear testing activity and invite inspectors to examine its nuclear program, ITAR-Tass reported.
According to Interfax, Ban also said the international community should provide North Korea with security guarantees and economic aid.
The North barely alluded to its Oct. 9 nuclear test in the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, and didn't say whether it remained committed to an earlier agreement to abandon its nuclear ambitions - a possible sign that negotiators could be facing another round of frustrating dialogue when the talks resume.
North Korea also emphasized that a direct meeting with the U.S. during previously unpublicized negotiations Tuesday in Beijing, had made the diplomatic breakthrough possible. U.S. President George W. Bush, who has long shunned direct talks with Pyongyang, credited China's mediation for the agreement.
"Bilateral and multilateral contacts took place in Beijing on Oct. 31 with (the) main emphasis on the contact between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S," it said.
The North only briefly noted that the country "recently took a self-defensive countermeasure against the U.S. daily increasing nuclear threat and financial sanctions against it."
The nuclear talks - which include China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas - reached an agreement in September 2005 where the North pledged to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees, but there was little progress toward implementing the accord.
The U.S. had previously maintained that the financial issue was a matter of law enforcement separate from the nuclear talks. But in Beijing on Tuesday, the chief U.S. nuclear envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said Washington agreed to take up the matter in the revived arms negotiations.
However, there were conflicting signals from the United States. White House press secretary Tony Snow later insisted the United States made no promises to link the financial dispute to the nuclear one, but only agreed that "issues like that may be discussable at some future time."
Hill said Tuesday that the nuclear talks could resume as easy as November or December, but acknowledged the negotiations still had a long way to go.
In Washington, Bush cautiously welcomed Tuesday's deal and thanked the Chinese for brokering it. But he said the agreement would not sidetrack U.S. efforts to enforce sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang for the nuclear test. Those measures ban the North's weapons trade and other items such as luxury goods.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Japan will maintain sanctions on the North until it abandons its nuclear development.
South Korea's Yu also told lawmakers Wednesday in Seoul that "just coming to the talks itself won't affect the level of Security Council sanctions" against North Korea.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun announced a shake-up Wednesday of top Cabinet security positions, naming a new foreign minister, unification minister, defense minister and spy chief.
The reshuffle was triggered by the appointment of the current foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, as the next U.N. Secretary-General and last week's resignation by the unification minister, who offered to step down to apologize for policy failures after the North's nuclear test. Two other top-level officials also handed in their resignations last week citing separate reasons.