BEIJING China has stopped publicly issuing trade data about North Korea, veiling the potentially sensitive numbers about its wary neighbour under another category while the two countries seek improved ties.
Destination and origin statistics on China's imports and exports for September issued on Monday gave no separate numbers for second straight month for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name of the North, as they have long appeared in the tables.
The trade tables for coal, crude oil, oil products and cereals issued by China's General Administration of Customs instead used another category, "other Asia not elsewhere specified", which for those commodities at least appeared to cover exclusively trade flows between China and the North.
Analysts and officials have used Chinese statistics to gauge otherwise opaque ties between the two communist neighbours. But North Korea has stopped appearing in the Chinese data since last month, when statistics for August also avoided mention of it.
The change may help Beijing to obscure shifts in economic flows with the North, which relies on China for most of its trade and aid. In the build-up to North Korea's first nuclear test in Oct. 2006, the trade data showed China cut crude oil shipments to the North in September, although it was unclear whether the stoppage was a calculated gesture or due to more prosaic problems.
An official in charge of data services at the Customs Administration told Reuters that the change would last, but would not say why. Reuters and other companies buy the data.
"We're no longer issuing trade data about North Korea," said the official, who declined to give her name. "We're not allowed to issue the data anymore."
She declined to answer further questions, referring them to another data services official.
That official, Xu Xianghui, said the data could not be released because of a "technical fault". But Xu said it was unclear if that fault would ever be fixed.
BID TO IMRPOVE TIES
The statistical change coincides with attempts by Beijing to strengthen political and economic ties with Pyongyang, strained after North Korea in May held its second nuclear test.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was feted when he visited Pyongyang this month. The usually reclusive supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, embraced Wen on his arrival.
Kim signalled that his government could return to six-party nuclear disarmament talks it had declared dead six months ago. Wen later said Pyongyang wanted to ease international strains, following sanctions sparked by its May nuclear test.
China has become more crucial to North Korea's survival as Pyongyang's ties with South Korea have frayed.
Last year, trade between China and North Korea reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent on 2007. But in the first nine months of this year bilateral trade slipped to $1.85 billion, a fall of 2.9 percent compared with the same months last year.
No other nations or regions appear to have been included in the "not otherwise specified" category.
The data provided suggested Chinese exports of crude oil to the North have fallen slightly this year, while Chinese exports of rice to the North reached 48,240 tonnes in the first nine months of the year, a jump of 140 percent from the same period of 2008.
On Monday, South Korea said it would make a small grant of humanitarian aid to North Korea, ending its suspension of handouts after a series of conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang.
(Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)