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SKorea to delay rice aid to NKorea
South Korea will delay shipments of crucial rice aid to North Korea until the communist country keeps its promise to shut down its nuclear reactor, government sources quoted by local media said Thursday

Seoul last month agreed to resume regular annual shipments totalling 400,000 tons of rice worth 170 million dollars. Officials said at the time the first one would be made in late May, provided the North had taken initial steps under a February denuclearisation pact.

Last week the government approved the budget for the rice.

"As we made clear in inter-Korean economic talks last month, however, we will wait and see if North Korea will carry out the February 13 agreement," a government official told Yonhap news agency on condition of anonymity.

The government has yet to sign a contract to buy the rice so it would be almost impossible to start delivering it late this month, Yonhap said.

A unification ministry spokesman told AFP it was unclear whether there would be a delay in sending the first consignment.

UN agencies say the North, which suffered full-blown famine in the mid- to-late 1990s, will suffer a shortfall of one million tons of food this year, or a fifth of its food needs.

South Korea, the United States and Japan have expressed frustration over a banking dispute delaying the first phase of the February deal.

Phase one involves the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor, which produces the raw material for bomb-making plutonium, in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

The three countries, along with China and Russia, have been negotiating since 2003 with the North about its nuclear programme.

Hankook newspaper said Seoul's decision follows a US request.

North Korea, which carried out its first nuclear test last October, made the reactor shutdown conditional on settlement of a dispute over its accounts in a Macau bank.

The accounts totalling 25 million dollars were frozen in Banco Delta Asia in 2005 under US money-laundering and counterfeiting sanctions.

The US lifted the restrictions on the accounts in March. But the North has had problems arranging a transfer via foreign banks, which are unwilling to touch apparently tainted money.

The US-based Wachovia bank said last week it was considering a State Department request to help process the transfer.

Chief US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said in Hanoi he was confident the complex bank dispute would be settled.

"It will be resolved, and I think it's time for North Korea to pick up the phone and call the IAEA ( International Atomic Energy Agency) and begin this process of shutting down this facility in Yongbyon," Hill said.
MGR Archive 25.5.2007
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