WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has barred United States aid workers from going to North Korea as it pressures Pyongyang to dismantle the country's nuclear weapons programme, according to humanitarian groups and a former US ambassador.
Sanctions imposed by the United Nations last winter have already forced aid groups to severely limit some activities, such as shipping farming equipment into the country.
North Korea is one of the world's poorest nations, and its citizens grapple with food shortages.
The moves by the Trump administration seek to tighten sanctions as part of its maximum-pressure campaign during nuclear negotiations, as well as sever non-governmental exchanges between Americans and North Koreans.
President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June and has said he plans to hold a second summit meeting soon.
It was not the first time the Trump administration has cut off humanitarian aid during diplomatic negotiations.
Over the past several months, US officials ended civilian aid to Palestinians in the hope of coercing Palestinian officials into peace negotiations with Israel.
Since last month, the State Department has refused to grant special permission to aid workers to travel to North Korea.
It had done so in some cases in the year since the Trump administration enacted a general ban in September last year on Americans travelling to North Korea.
Barring aid workers from travelling affects humanitarian programmes in North Korea, including efforts to alleviate tuberculosis and provide medical training and farming assistance.
"People are suffering," said Mr Robert King, a former US special envoy for human rights in North Korea.
"It's not the same as limiting luxury goods for the elite or reducing access to military goods. The idea of focusing effort and time on limiting humanitarian services strikes me as being totally counterproductive."
Asked for comment, the State Department said it was still reviewing exceptions to the general travel ban "on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a range of factors".
A dozen US non-profit groups work regularly in North Korea. None has a permanent presence there and must travel back and forth to the country to do their work.
Many have said they are now being denied permission to travel, according to Mr Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a pro-engagement group in Washington.
Talk of a travel ban on aid groups has been discussed among North Korea watchers since last week.
"It has become clear that the Trump administration regards the provision of humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people as a legitimate target for its maximum-pressure campaign," Mr Luse wrote in an e-mail to about 200 people last week.
"Indeed, a line has been crossed."