China has stopped sending fleeing North Koreans back across the border, in retaliation for Pyongyang failing to consult its ally over last week's rocket launch, a Japanese report said Wednesday.
The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted two Chinese officials as saying the long-standing policy of swiftly returning any North Korean who made it across the border and into China -- despite the punishment they face -- had been put on hold.
"If refugees are sent back, that's the end of their lives. We can't ignore it," one official in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea, told the paper, adding that deportations had been halted.
Another official said the move was because Pyongyang had not consulted its patron about the botched launch of a rocket which the hermit state said was carrying a satellite, but which the West condemned as a banned missile test.
"North Korea failed to disclose specific plans of the missile launch to the Chinese side," the second official, whose position and location were not given, told the Yomiuri, Japan's biggest-selling daily newspaper.
The suspension reflects Beijing's displeasure with its troublesome neighbour which "did not show the necessary attention to its friend China," the official said.
China arrests and repatriates fugitives from North Korea, considering them to be economic migrants rather than potential refugees.
South Korea and international rights groups have urged Beijing to change the policy, saying returnees can face harsh punishment.
Since the December death of Kim Jong-Il, father of North Korea's youthful new leader Kim Jong-Un, officials in the bordering provinces of Liaoning and Jilin were aware of "about 30 North Koreans every day" crossing into China, the Liaoning official said.
North Korea's launch -- which failed when the rocket disintegrated shortly after blastoff -- was carried out despite international pressure including from China.
In an apparently related measure ahead of the launch, China allowed five North Korean defectors to leave for South Korea after they spent months or years holed up in Seoul's Beijing embassy to avoid arrest, media reports from the South said.
Pyongyang on Tuesday rejected UN condemnation of its rocket launch and said it would no longer adhere to an agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear and missile programmes.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled poverty or repression in their impoverished homeland, almost all of them across the border to China.
Some hide out among -- or marry into -- the ethnic Korean community in China's northeast. Others try to travel on to Southeast Asian nations before flying to Seoul.