November 13, 2008 / 8:12 AM / 12 years ago

North Korea restricts travel for Chinese visitors

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea is restricting visitors from its ally and giant neighbour China, travel agents said on Thursday, including virtually closing off one of its main border crossings at Dandong.

North Korea lashed out at South Korea on Wednesday and said it would close its southern land border from next month, largely putting a stop to the few exchanges that exist between the states divided since the Cold War.

The move follows growing anger in Pyongyang at the hard-line approach of the South’s conservative government, which said it was cutting what once had been a steady flow of unconditional aid and instead would tie handouts to progress Pyongyang makes in ending its nuclear arms programme.

Travel agents in China, who send a steady though small flow of tourists to impoverished and isolated North Korea, said they were still organising visits, though trips had to be made via air rather than by rail.

“The border has been closed since October. If you want to go to North Korea, you have to go to Shenyang and fly from there to North Korea,” said one travel agent in Dandong, referring to a northeastern Chinese city.

A Chinese rail official in Dandong said freight trains were still able to cross over into North Korea.

“There are four trains a week to North Korea. One train just left for there, though I don’t know if there are any passengers on it. I think most of the trains are freight trains,” the official said by telephone.

China’s relations with North Korea have long been characterised as being “as close as lips and teeth” after they fought side-by-side during the 1950-53 Korean War.

China has been building a fence along the once relatively lightly guarded border since 2006, when North Korea tested a nuclear device.

And the Financial Times cited U.S. official as saying that China had recently boosted troop numbers at the North Korean border.

China is a major aid donor to a country whose economy has shrunk drastically in recent years and which has great difficulty feeding its people, but bilateral ties soured after North Korea’s nuclear test two years ago.

Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ken Wills and David Fox

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