China is North Korea's best ally. But even it is showing signs of exasperation with Pyongyang's slow pace of progress in dealing with its famine, and the exodus of hungry citizens.
China is facing mounting international pressure to deal differently with the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans who have crossed into northern China.
Sunday, China broke the month-long diplomatic standoff over 23 North Koreans who have sought political asylum in the South Korean consulate here.
According to the government- run Xinhua news agency, Beijing agreed to allow the North Koreans to leave the country. South Korean officials say that the asylum seekers will fly to a third country, probably the Philippines, before traveling on to South Korea.
China has an agreement with its North Korean partner to send refugees back to their isolated communist homeland. But the nearly 40 North Koreans who have managed to get into foreign embassies since March have been allowed to leave the country.
Beijing has found some diplomatic wiggle room in its pact with North Korea, observers say, because those North Koreans who reach foreign embassies are categorized as asylum seekers instead of refugees.
But clearly, the embassy incidents are putting international pressure on Beijing's handling of all North Korean migrants.
In Washington last Friday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee followed the House in adopting a resolution criticizing China's treatment of the North Koreans and urging Beijing to stick to its international obligations under a UN refugee treaty.
"The North Korean refugee crisis is an important issue that has been neglected, partly because many including the Chinese government wish it would go away," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas. "But it won't or rather, the refugees won't."
"This problem continues to escalate with daily reports of North Korean asylum bids through Western embassies in China. If we do not pay greater attention to the plight of North Korean refugees and explore various policy options, it may become a major threat to hopes of peaceful change on the Korean peninsula," Senator Brownback said.
The plight of the North Korean refugees has been elevated in the snail-paced world of North Korean diplomacy thanks to a German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who has organized the publicity for the North Korean refugees who have run into various embassies in Beijing.
Aid groups want China to recognize the migratory flows and create refugee camps for them.
"It would take huge change for China to do anything to undermine the North like that," concedes an Asian diplomat.
China has repeatedly turned down offers of assistance from the UN High Commission for Refugees.
"These people are not refugees," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters Saturday, rejecting the idea of camps. China says they are economic migrants and must return home.
But the international pressure continues, nonetheless. Last week Amnesty International wrote to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji asking for the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, and an end to forced repatriations.
"Those pushed back over the border meet an uncertain fate. This could include imprisonment, torture, and, in some cases summary execution or death in detention from starvation and disease," Amnesty International said. "Seeking asylum in embassies and consulates in China is virtually the last recourse left to the asylum seekers."
CHINESE sources in the border areas say police have been given quotas of North Koreans to capture and repatriate. When they fail, they are demoted or their pay is docked.
"Everyone is scared. Even the street children have vanished," says one resident of Yanji, China, a city near the North Korean border. "In some places they are even offering to pay a bounty for anyone who brings in a refugee."
Some of those being rounded up are North Korean women who married local ethnic Korean farmers. Residents also claim that underground orphanages have been closed, churches raided, and locals who aid the refugees punished with fines and arrest.
While some blame Mr. Vollertsen for precipitating the crackdown, it started two years ago when Chinese police, allegedly working hand in hand with North Korean agents, detained and harassed foreign aid workers and missionaries who are funding the charity work.
Meanwhile, the United Nation's World Food Program (WFP) issued a renewed warning that the North is still starving despite seven years of emergency food aid.
The WFP says that it lacks the resources to achieve its goal of feeding 6.4 million of the country's most vulnerable people, amounting to one-third of the population.
North Korea is short of about 1.5 million tons of food this year, an improvement over 2001, when the gap was 2.2 million tons. Last year, North Korea received 885,000 tons of food from the World Food Program and more than 700,000 tons from individual countries and other sources.