North Korea must meet its obligations to begin disarming, the chief US nuclear envoy has said, as expectations grow that it will miss a Saturday deadline to shut its main nuclear reactor.
Speaking in Seoul Christopher Hill said that with a row over frozen funds now resolved, there was no longer any obstacle to the process of denuclearisation.
However, North Korea said on Friday it was still working to confirm the release of $25m that had been frozen in an account at the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia.
In a statement the North's foreign ministry said its intention to implement an agreement on initial steps to disarm "remains unchanged".
It added that it would move ahead with commitments under the six-nation agreement signed in February when the release of the funds "is proved to be a reality."
The issue of the frozen funds had been a key sticking point towards implementing a six nation agreement on shutting North Korea's nuclear program.
The funds were frozen in 2005 after the US accused the bank of helping the North launder money and process counterfeit US $100 bills.
Resolving the funds issue has been North Korea's main condition to abandon its nuclear program for more than a year, during which it conducted its first-ever underground nuclear weapon test in October.
"It's time for them to get on with their obligations," Hill said after meeting officials in the South Korean capital.
"Let's hope that the (North) is waiting to the last minute to make that move."
"This is not a matter of Macau, it's a matter of whether (the North Koreans) want to fulfill what they said they would do for the denuclearisation process."
Hill was to depart later Friday for China, where he has said he is open to talks with the North Korea's nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, but that no meeting has been planned.
North Korea says its commitment to shutdown the Yongbyon reactor "remains unchanged" [AP]
Meanwhile a former Bush administration official has said he believes North Korea will not make any irreversible steps toward giving up its nuclear program.
Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state until 2005, made the comments to a forum meeting in Seoul.
"They'll delay and they'll make small moves toward denuclearisation, but nothing irreversible," Armitage was quoted by the Yonhap news agency as saying.
"They are playing a very good game," he said, adding that the North will keep trying to exploit what it sees as US concessions while Bush administration may be tempted into a settlement "short of our goals" before next year's presidential election.
"There is a danger that the United States will be a little hungry for an agreement," Armitage told the meeting. "My government is under such attack generally in the United States and has not many great successes recently in the international community."
The North pledged in February to take initial steps to disarm including shutting down its main reactor at Yongbyon by a deadline of April 14.
In return it would receive energy aid and political concessions along with a US promise to resolve the bank issue.
However, US officials and experts say the process of shutting down a reactor and having UN nuclear inspectors verify it would probably take several days.
That would make Saturday's deadline the latest failure in a nuclear standoff that has lasted more than four years.
The problem in reaching this first target in the process of disarming North Korea has raised questions in some circles about how smoothly the rest of the process will go forward.
However, analysts say it is unlikely the US or other countries would seek to take any punitive action – largely because the US also failed to deliver on a promise to resolve the bank issue within 30 days.