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FACTBOX-What does unfreezing North Korea's Macau finances mean?

(Reuters) - The end of a probe into North Korean banking activities in Macau has opened the way for progress in scrapping Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, the United States said on Thursday, as envoys converged on Beijing for new negotiations.

Here are some key facts on the financial squeeze which may now be lifted:

WHEN AND WHY WERE THE ACCOUNTS FROZEN?

- In September 2005 Washington labeled Macau’s Banco Delta Asia (BDA) a “primary money-laundering concern” that assisted Pyongyang’s counterfeiting of U.S. dollars, drug trafficking and other illicit activities.

WHAT’S THE BACKSTORY?

- The announcement came shortly after six-party talks in Beijing agreed on a joint statement offering North Korea aid and security assurances in return for nuclear disarmament.

- Washington insisted the freeze was separate from the six-party nuclear negotiations, which bring together North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

- But North Korea rejected U.S. accusations of financial wrongdoing and boycotted the nuclear talks for more than 12 months, only returning late last year.

WHAT’S THE LATEST?

- On March 14, 2007, the U.S. Treasury formally barred American banks from dealing with BDA, signaling the end of its investigation and clearing the way for Macau to decide what to do with the frozen funds.

- The move followed an 18-month investigation, which confirmed the BDA’s willingness to turn a blind eye to its North Korea-related clients’ illicit activities, a Treasury spokesman said.

HOW MUCH MONEY IS INVOLVED?

- Macau authorities reportedly froze some $24 million in North Korea-linked accounts after Treasury’s initial designation.

- The move largely cut North Korea out of the international financial system, U.S. officials say.

- Estimates this week put the figure that could be released at between $8 million and $12 million.

WHAT ARE THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS?

- Freeing the funds could encourage North Korea’s denuclearization, defusing tensions ramped up by its nuclear test last year.

- North Korea has said it wants the money back before it shuts down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and readmits inspectors, actions it agreed to in a February 13 six-party accord in Beijing.

- This week the chief U.S. nuclear envoy, Christopher Hill, said talks were still needed on Banco Delta Asia, but he did not expect this to “pose a stumbling block” to the six-party talks.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?:

- Macau authorities must now decide whether to release the frozen funds.

Sources: Reuters

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