More than 20 (m) million dollars in disputed North Korean funds were transferred from a blacklisted Macau bank on Thursday, an official said, possibly clearing the way for the North to start shutting down its nuclear reactor.
The money dispute has dragged on for nearly two years between Pyongyang and Washington, which accused the bank of helping the North launder money.
The funds were frozen at the Banco Delta Asia bank in Macau, prompting the North to storm out of talks on dismantling its nuclear weapons programme.
Washington agreed to give its blessing for the funds' release to win progress on the nuclear issue.
But the North has refused to move forward on a February pledge to start dismantling its nuclear programme until it actually receives the money.
Although Pyongyang was allowed several months ago to begin withdrawing the cash, the funds remained in the bank in the Chinese territory for reasons that were never made clear.
It was widely believed that other banks didn't want to receive the tainted money. Pyongyang was also reportedly demanding the money be transferred via a U.S. bank to prove the funds were clean.
The long-awaited transfer finally happened on Thursday, said Francis Tam, Macau's secretary of economy and finance.
"Banco Delta Asia transferred more than 20 million out of the bank this afternoon in accordance with the client's instruction," Tam told reporters on the sidelines of a business gathering.
But Tam would not say where the money was sent. "We have heard reports in foreign media that the money can be wired via the U.S. or Russia, for example. I think these routings are possible," Tam added.
North Korea had 25 (m) million dollars in the bank, but Tam would not provide a specific figure for how much was transferred, only saying that most of the money had been transferred.
He added that there would probably not be another transfer.
If some of the money remained in the bank, it could become a new reason for the recalcitrant and unpredictable North to delay progress in complying with its pledge to shut down its nuclear weapons programme.
The North did not immediately comment on the transfer. In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong said the process was "ongoing" until the involved parties say the issue is resolved.