WASHINGTON (AFP) – The House of Representatives has voted to bar US food aid to North Korea, with lawmakers charging that the assistance would prop up the communist regime instead of feeding the hungry.

The Republican-led House, hashing out appropriations for agriculture late Wednesday, approved by voice vote an amendment that would prohibit food assistance to North Korea through US government programs.

The measure needs approval by the Senate, where President Barack Obama's Democratic Party holds a majority. The Obama administration has voiced concerns about sending food to North Korea but has not made a decision, with some Democratic lawmakers supporting aid on humanitarian grounds.

Impoverished North Korea has requested overseas food and last month invited a US envoy to assess its needs. Relief groups have said that North Korea faces imminent shortages, although many US lawmakers have been skeptical.

Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California who authored the amendment, said it would be wrong to send food to North Korea at a time that Kim Jong-Il's regime is pursuing nuclear weapons.

"Let's be clear, the aid we provide would prop up Kim Jong-Il's regime, a brutal and dangerous dictatorship," Royce said in a statement.

He quoted a North Korean defector, Kim Duk-Hong, as saying that food aid, "is the same as providing funding for North Korea's nuclear program because it allows Kim Jong-Il to divert resources."

US-based relief groups have proposed sending 160,000 to 175,000 tons of food to North Korea -- about half of what the regime requested.

The groups are non-governmental but in the past have relied heavily on US official support, meaning it would be difficult to send significant food aid if the restrictions took effect.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died in a famine in the 1990s. Five US relief groups that visited earlier this year said that some North Koreans were again eating grass and tree bark.

A spokeswoman for one of the five groups, Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps, voiced concern about Royce's amendment.

"I think it's a really bad precedent to deny humanitarian assistance to other countries out of principle," said Joy Portella, the spokeswoman.

Mercy Corps led the five US groups which distributed food in 2008 and 2009, when North Korea abruptly expelled them. She said aid workers were able to monitor the aid closely and had the right to enter people's homes.

"It wasn't a case where we just dumped food there and hoped for the best, as some people might think," Portella said.

Another of the five relief groups, Christian-oriented Samaritan's Purse, earlier forecast that North Korea would be running out of food this month due to a poor harvest.

Senator John Kerry, the Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the most prominent voice in support of sending food aid to North Korea, contingent on an agreement on close monitoring.

Kerry has said that the United States should keep its tradition of separating politics and humanitarian assistance and that any food packages should clearly be marked as gifts from the United States.

But some US and South Korean officials have voiced concern that the regime may be exaggerating its needs as it tries to stock up for national celebrations in 2012 marking the 100th anniversary of the regime's founder Kim Il-Sung.

South Korea has refused significant aid to North Korea until it addresses concerns. North Korea last year shelled a civilian part of the South for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War and was also blamed for the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan warship which killed 46 sailors.