SEOUL — North Korea on Saturday invited U.N. nuclear inspectors to visit in the first concrete sign of a breakthrough in a stalemate over its atomic program, as the transfer of frozen North Korean funds at the center of the impasse neared completion.
North Korea sent a letter to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, inviting inspectors to discuss shutting down its main nuclear reactor, since "it is confirmed that the process of de-freezing the funds ... has reached its final phase," the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
It said a "working-level delegation" from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency had been invited to the IAEA's verification and monitoring of the Yongbyon reactor's shutdown.
IAEA spokesman Ayhan Evrensel said the agency had not yet received the invitation.
South Korea and the U.S. said they were pleased by the development.
"It is a good step," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Saturday in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was spending the weekend. "Now we can hopefully continue on the path set out in the agreed Feb. 13 framework that will lead to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula."
In Seoul today, an official in South Korea's foreign ministry said, "We welcome North Korea's move."
North Korea had refused to act on its February pledge to disarm until it got access to $25 million that had been frozen at the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, which the U.S. had blacklisted. The U.S. accused the bank of helping North Korea's government pass fake $100 bills and launder money from arms sales.
Saying the freeze was a sign of U.S. hostility, North Korea boycotted nuclear talks for more than a year. It conducted its first nuclear test in October.
Signs of a breakthrough in the standoff emerged last week as the transfer of North Korean funds at the Macao bank began.
U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said that a technical glitch was holding up the final transfer, but that the issue probably would be resolved by Monday.
Once the North Koreans get the money, "we hope they will get on with what they need to do in terms of implementing the February agreement," Hill said.
Although the timing of the next round of six-party talks is up to the host country, China, Hill said he expected them to be held in early July.
However, he said, it is important for North Korea to fulfill its obligations for the first phase of the disarmament agreement before the next meeting.
The first phase requires North Korea to shut down its reactor and invite IAEA inspectors.