China says the aid it provides to North Korea is aimed at helping the North Korean people.  This comes amid North Korean reports that China offered aid, in a deal struck last month between a senior Chinese official and reclusive North Korean President Kim Jong Il.

In Thursday's briefing for the media, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu was asked repeatedly about North Korean reports that China is offering aid to its impoverished neighbor.

Jiang says, in past years, the Chinese government has provided assistance to North Korea, to help the North Korean people overcome economic difficulties.

Since the 1990's, North Korea has been forced to accept handouts from other countries to help feed its 23 million people, following natural disasters and bad economic management.

The Chinese spokeswoman says she has no information about specific aid shipments, but she did not deny the North Korean reports.

She had a more definitive answer when asked why Beijing has remained silent about North Korea's recent confrontation with South Korea.

Jiang says it is not correct to assume the Chinese government has remained silent about the issue.  She says China hopes that all parties can recognize the importance of maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula.

China supports improved relations

She says, as a close neighbor, China supports North and South Korean efforts to improve relations through dialogue.

At the end of last month, North Korea canceled all political and military agreements with South Korea.  

There also are reports that North Korea is preparing to test fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Observers say they believe Pyongyang is raising tensions on the peninsula, to attract the attention of new American President Barack Obama.

North Korea will feature high on the agenda during an expected visit to the region by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later this month.

Six nations - the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia - have been engaged in talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs.  The talks are in a stalemate because of disagreement over how to verify North Korea's nuclear activities.