HONG KONG -- China's decision to allow five North Koreans who sought asylum in the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang to go to Seoul via Manila reflects the delicate balancing act Beijing must perform in managing its relationship with North Korea, its longtime communist ally, and South Korea, its newfound friend and trading partner of the last decade.

It is extremely awkward for China to be in the position of having to choose between Pyongyang and Seoul. But last week, once again, it chose to let asylum seekers in highly publicized cases go to South Korea rather than send them back to North Korea, despite an agreement between Beijing and Pyongyang that illegal immigrants should be returned to their home country.

The saga of North Korean asylum seekers making their way first to China, gaining entry into foreign diplomatic premises, then being allowed to go to a third country before making their way to South Korea has gone on for many months now, beginning with seven members of a North Korean family who sought refuge in a United Nations office in Beijing last year.