In the latest of a series of moves toward apparent self-isolation, North Korea has informed the United States that it no longer wants American food assistance. U.S. officials are expressing disappointment over the move because of continuing food shortages in that country.
Despite the lack of diplomatic relations with the communist state, the United States has been the largest single donor of food aid to North Korea since the country's famine in the mid-1990s.
The aid program was severed in 2005, but it resumed again by mutual agreement last year amid United Nations forecasts of increased hunger in North Korea.
At a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood said North Korea informed the United States of its latest decision in a terse statement through diplomatic channels within the past few days.
Wood said the United States is obviously disappointed over the action because of its impending impact on needy North Koreans.
"Clearly this is food assistance that the North Korean people need. That is why we are concerned. This humanitarian assistance that we provide to the North has nothing to do with the six-party [nuclear] talks. This is about our true humanitarian concern for these people. And as you know, the food situation in North Korea is not a good one, and so we are very concerned about it," said Wood.
The U.N. World Food Program said late last year that despite a better-than-expected 2008 harvest, North Korea would need major outside food assistance this year and that nearly nine million people there were in serious need.
Wood said the United States has delivered nearly 170,000 metric tons of food since the aid arrangement was renewed last May, with the most recent shipment of 5,000 tons of cooking oil and corn/soy blended flour arriving in late January.
The two countries have had disputes over U.S. demands for Korean-speaking international monitors in North Korea to assure that American food actually gets to those in need, but the spokesman would not speculate as to why Pyongyang is ending the program.
North Korea has recently severed links and cooperation accords with South Korea, and taken other steps seen here as belligerent, including announced plans for a satellite launch next month that U.S. officials see as a disguised long-range ballistic-missile test.
The Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program have been stalled for several months over Pyongyang's refusal to accept a verification regime for the declaration of its nuclear activities it made last June.