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US says North Korea rejects food aid

Associated Press / March 18, 2009
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WASHINGTON - North Korea has rejected American food shipments and asked aid groups to leave the country by the end of the month, the United States and a leading aid agency said yesterday, another sign of mounting tension as Pyongyang plans a rocket launch that Washington sees as cover for a long-range missile test.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the North gave no reason for refusing to accept US food aid. 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 five aid groups working in the North to distribute US food were asked to leave by the end of March, said Joy Portella, spokeswoman for the international aid agency Mercy Corps. Their distribution program had been scheduled to run until June.

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

Last May, the United States said it would provide 500,000 tons of food to North Korea amid progress in nuclear negotiations, although Washington said the assistance was not related to the nuclear issue.

"We're obviously disappointed," Wood told reporters at the State Department.

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