Dandong - The biggest border crossing between North Korea and China has been closed to tourist groups, a Chinese official said on Wednesday as nuclear tensions mounted, but business travel was still allowed.
"Travel agencies are not allowed to take tourist groups to go there, since the North Korean government is now asking foreign people to leave," the official at the Dandong Border Office told AFP.
"As far as I know, business people can enter and leave North Korea freely," added the official, who declined to give his name, without making clear which country had ordered the move.
China is North Korea's sole major ally and the provider of the vast majority of its trade and aid, with most of the business passing through Dandong.
A woman surnamed Wu at a travel agency in the town said municipal authorities told the agency on Tuesday that because of tensions in Pyongyang, Dandong travel firms would not be able to take tours into North Korea from Wednesday.
"It was absolutely North Korea's [decision] because the travel bureau told us 'North Korea is now no longer allowing tour groups to be taken in'," the woman said.
An AFP photographer at the border on Wednesday saw several vehicles including cars, minibuses and lorries passing over the bridge crossing the Yalu river that marks the frontier, in both directions.
A three-carriage passenger train also crossed from China to North Korea, while North Korean boats patrolled the river and a helicopter hovered overhead before returning to the Korean side, he said.
Much of the trade in Dandong is not illegal under United Nations sanctions, which mainly ban luxury goods and weapons-related items.
But China's commercial lifeline is seen as helping to thwart international efforts to pressure the isolated North Korean regime to change its ways.
China's total trade with North Korea stood at $1.31bn in the first quarter, down 7.2% year-on-year, Customs said on Wednesday. Exports were down 13.8% to $720m, with imports up 2.5% to $590m.
But economists find tracking trade flows between the two a challenge, and no further details or explanations were immediately available.
Military watch alert raised
Most travellers crossing the Dandong border are Chinese businessmen or North Koreans who work or have business in China, while many of the Chinese citizens who live in Dandong are ethnic Koreans.
Tourist traffic at the crossing is largely limited to Chinese groups, with most international visitors flying straight to Pyongyang.
Nicholas Bonner, who runs Beijing-based Koryo Tours, said his agency had received no notification of any restrictions. "We're still running tours," he said, adding that the next one was planned for Saturday.
South Korea raised its military watch alert to "vital threat" on Wednesday ahead of an expected North Korean missile launch, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the Korean peninsula may be slipping out of control.