Chinese banks 'freeze' North Korean accounts

China thinks it can ill-afford to let the western powers push Pyongyang "too hard" with sanctions, precipitating a regime collapse.

Major Chinese banks have frozen accounts belonging to North Koreans, a South Korean newspaper reported, even as pressure on Beijing to rein in Pyongyang has risen in recent weeks following North Korea's nuclear test and a rocket launch.

The daily, Dong-A Ilbo, reported that a branch of China's biggest bank Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) suspended accounts with North Korean names since late December, Reuters said.

The daily cited phone conversations with an unnamed ICBC employee in its report.

The ICBC branch that reportedly suspended North Korean accounts is in the Dandong city, which is home to ethnic Korean Chinese traders as well as south Korean and western missionaries who try to operate in North Korea.

"(The bank) had never told me why it was taking such measures, but it seems that they are related with the strained relations between North Korea and China," the ICBC employee told the daily.

The report said ICBC officials could not be reached for comment.

The daily also said a different bank in northeast China blocked transactions to North Koreans' accounts, citing a Chinese businessman who has invested in North Korean mines.

Though China cranked up its criticism of North Korea for its provocative actions such as a nuclear test in January and the rocket launch this month, it has traditionally defended the reclusive regime.

The ties between North Korea and China have been termed as "friendship forged by blood". Pyongyang relies on Beijing for weapons, food, energy and technology.

China thinks it can ill-afford to let the western powers push Pyongyang "too hard" with the sanctions, precipitating a regime collapse in the isolated country.