updated 3/17/2009 2:21:59 PM ET 2009-03-17T18:21:59

The United States said Tuesday that North Korea has rejected American food aid shipments, another sign of mounting tension as Pyongyang plans a rocket launch that Washington sees as a long-range missile test.

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State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the North gave no reason for rejecting U.S. food shipments. North Korea faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside aid to help feed its 23 million people since famine reportedly killed as many as 2 million in the 1990s, a result of natural disasters and mismanagement.

The decision comes during a standoff with the international community over the North's nuclear weapons, and as the United States and others warn that any rocket test would trigger international sanctions. The North Korean launch is seen as a bid for President Barack Obama's attention as six-nation nuclear disarmament talks remain stalled.

Wood said the United States will work with non-governmental organizations to help make sure the food already in North Korea gets properly distributed.

As part of a U.S.-North Korean food aid agreement settled in May 2008, the United States has delivered 169,000 metric tons to North Korea, the last shipment of 5,000 metric tons of vegetable oil and corn soy blend arriving in January, Wood said.

"This is a program intended to try to help give food to needy North Koreans. We're obviously disappointed," Wood told reporters at the State Department. "Clearly, this is food assistance that the North Korean people need. That's why we're concerned. ... The food situation in North Korea is not a good one."

Stalled talks
North Korea is among the poorest countries in the world, with an average per capita income of $1,150 in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, according to South Korea's central bank.

Wood said U.S. humanitarian assistance had nothing to do with deadlocked six-nation negotiations meant to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons. Those talks have stalled over the North's refusal to agree to a process to verify its nuclear weapons program.

Under a 2007 deal, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear complex — a step toward its ultimate dismantlement — in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions from international negotiators.

More than 70 percent of the promised energy aid has been provided, but Pyongyang has complained that the pace of energy shipments does not match that of its disabling work.

South Korea said Tuesday that the North recently began slowing work on disabling its nuclear facilities in an apparent protest of delays in energy shipments.

More on: Pyongyang

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