Beijing has little to gain and much to lose from putting pressure on North Korea over widespread human rights abuses, say analysts, after China hit out at allegations of "complicity" in Pyongyang's rule of terror, which has been likened to Nazi-era atrocities in Europe.
"China has very serious human rights issues of its own," Yang Liyu, professor of East Asian Studies at Seton Hall University, told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"So of course it's not likely to step up the pressure on North Korea to improve its own human rights situation," Yang said after a U.N. panel investigating rights abuses in North Korea said at the weekend that it has written to the country's leader Kim Jong Un that he could be hauled before an international court for leading a regime blamed for committing rights abuses on a scale unparalleled in modern history.
The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea had warned China, North Korea's key ally, that its forced repatriations of North Korean migrants and defectors might amount to "the aiding and abetting [of] crimes against humanity."
According to Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, the issue of North Koreans in China is a very sensitive one for Beijing.
"The issue of the North Korean refugees is a human rights issue, seen from the outside world, from an international perspective," Li said.
"But to China, it is a factor in its bilateral relationship with North Korea."
Beijing has dismissed the warnings by the U.N. panel, which in its voluminous report detailed human rights violations including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence" in North Korea.
The report also cited "concerns relating to China's policy and practice of forced repatriation" of North Korean citizens who escaped across the border into its northeastern provinces.
The U.N. panel said it was particularly concerned about reports that Chinese officials had given information on North Korean refugees to the Pyongyang regime.
Beijing should "caution relevant officials that such conduct could amount to the aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity," it said.
Beijing hit out at the allegations on Tuesday, saying it had consistently dealt with North Korean defectors "in accordance with international law and humanitarian principles."
"We totally reject this accusation," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
"On the North Korean defector issue, our position is very clear," she said. "We deal with it appropriately, in accordance with international law and humanitarian principles."
She repeated Beijing's official view of North Korean refugees, saying that they enter China illegally "for economic reasons."
Yang said Beijing had refused all along to regard North Koreans fleeing hunger and human rights abuses to escape to neighboring China as refugees, for fear of being swamped once their international legal status was recognized.
"It would be amazing if they admitted that they were refugees at all," he said.
"But how many can they take? Can [China] receive two million of them?"
Kim 'no puppet'
Yang said Beijing has a hard time influencing Pyongyang on any subject, even if it wants to, as in the case of the isolated Stalinist regime's nuclear program.
"Kim Jong Un doesn't do as he is told," he said. "He's no puppet."
"North Korea is a regime that doesn't behave responsibly in the world, and is completely devoid of democratic thinking and of any consideration of human rights," he said.
"And China doesn't want to lose its position as North Korea's only friend."
The U.N. report, which was based on a one-year probe and based on interviews with victims and witnesses, said the scale of human rights violations in North Korea amounted to crimes against humanity.
It cited evidence provided by individual victims and witnesses, including the "harrowing treatment" meted out to the regime's estimated 80,000-120,000 political prisoners, some of whom said they would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies.
Others told of watching family members being murdered in prison camps, and of defenseless inmates being used for martial arts practice.
The findings were based on testimony from 80 witnesses at four public hearings last year and more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and others.
North Korea said the report was an "instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system" and defaming the country.
The rights violations listed in the report "do not exist in our country," it said in a statement.
China is impoverished North Korea's main diplomatic and economic ally but has shown growing irritation with Pyongyang's war threats, and backed tough U.N. sanctions against its hardline communist neighbor for its defiant nuclear and missile tests last March.
However, President Xi Jinping has also warned against international "interference" with any country on China's doorstep.
Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.