BEIJING - Talks on disarming North Korea's nuclear program remained stalled Wednesday, stuck over a dispute on when $25 million of Pyongyang's funds will be released from a Macau bank.
North Korea said it would not take part in the six-party negotiations in China's capital to meet goals outlined in a landmark Feb. 13 disarmament agreement until the money was transferred.
"I can't say with confidence how long it will take for the money to be transferred as North Korea wants, or what kind of technical obstacles remain," said South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo.
He told reporters it would be difficult to hold a planned meeting of the heads of the delegations "if North Korea insists that it cannot take part in negotiations before they confirm the transfer ..."
Planned group talks were called off Tuesday, with some participants holding bilateral meetings instead, when North Korea said it would not take part until the money was in its account.
North Korea boycotted the six-nation talks for more than a year after Washington blacklisted the tiny, privately run Banco Delta Asia on suspicion the funds were connected to money-laundering or counterfeiting.
But U.S. officials announced Monday that the money would be transferred to a North Korean account in Beijing, saying it was up to the Monetary Authority of Macau, a Chinese territory, to release the funds.
The authority has declined to say if it will announce when the funds have been released. "I have no instructions from my superiors regarding when the money will be transferred," Wendy Au, a spokeswoman for the authority, said Wednesday.
Japan's chief delegate, Kenichiro Sasae, said he was still optimistic of progress once the transfer dispute was resolved.
"As soon as the current problem, which is a technical issue, is resolved, I believe things will start moving forward," he told reporters.
"I hopes talks among the heads of the delegations will resume, paving the way for progress on the discussions on the denuclearization issue," he said.
The setback comes as the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and host China are trying to fine-tune a timetable for North Korea's disarmament under the February agreement.
Under the deal, North Korea is to receive energy and economic assistance and a start toward normalizing relations with the U.S. and Japan, in return for beginning the disarmament process.
North Korea would ultimately receive assistance equivalent to 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil if it fully discloses and dismantles all its nuclear programs.
The Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korea paper in Japan, said the North Korean "delegation is maintaining a position that returned funds should be directly confirmed in order for the BDA issue to be finally resolved."
The negotiations have also been complicated by Pyongyang's strained ties with Tokyo.
North Korea is upset at Japan's insistence that the two nations settle issues related to Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s before taking steps to improve relations.