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China probes North Korea bank suspected of nuclear link: South Korea report

[SEOUL] China is investigating executives of a North Korean bank believed to finance the illicit procurement of arms and materials related to the isolated country's banned nuclear programme, South Korea's JoongAng Daily reported on Monday.

China and the United States have agreed to step up cooperation in the UN Security Council and in law-enforcement channels after North Korea's fifth nuclear test on Sept 9, the White House said last week.

While China is North Korea's sole major ally, it disapproves of its nuclear and missile programmes.

The Chinese-US cooperation includes targeting the finances of Liaoning Hongxiang Industrial, a Chinese conglomerate headed by a Communist Party cadre, that the Obama administration thinks has had a role in helping North Korea's nuclear programme, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

The JoongAng Daily said Chinese authorities were investigating a top official of the Kwangson Banking Corporation at its branch in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

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The US Treasury designated the bank in 2009 under an order that targets entities supporting North Korea's arms trafficking because of its suspected involvement in procuring "dual-use" technology with both civilian and military application.

"The head of the branch, Ri Il Ho, temporarily returned to North Korea, so the deputy executive is being investigated," a source told the JoongAng Daily.

The paper did not identify its source, who it said was "well-informed on North Korea affairs".

In March this year, after the latest round of UN sanctions, the United Nations extended an asset freeze to all funds held abroad by the bank.

The bank branch in Dandong then moved to an office on the 13th floor of a building also used by Hongxiang and continued to operate, though without a sign outside its office, the JoongAng Daily said.

China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul and the C4ADS think-tank in Washington last week identified more than US$500 million in trade from Jan 2011 to Sept 2015 between the North and the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, which states on its website that it trades heavily with the North.

More than 20 customs and city officials in Dandong are being investigated for granting favours to Ma Xiaohong, Hongxiang's founder and top executive, the JoongAng reported, citing a source "knowledgeable about relations between Beijing and Pyongyang".

Certain assets related to Ms Ma and some of her relatives and associates had been frozen by Chinese authorities in recent weeks, according to government and corporate filings cited by the Wall Street Journal.

Other unidentified "North Korean employees" living in China were also under investigation, the JoongAng said.


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