In a major policy shift, North Korea proposed on Saturday that it open talks with South Korea this weekend on famine relief and other issues.

If Seoul agrees to talks between vice ministers, it would be the first government dialogue between the two in nearly four years.In a telephone message sent through the Red Cross channel between the two Koreas, the North suggested that the two sides begin talks Saturday in Beijing.

South Korea did not immediately respond. But the newly installed government of President Kim Dae-jung has said it wants to discuss a thaw with North Korea, with which it is still technically at war.

The proposal was a striking break from the past for the North, which has avoided dealing directly with the capitalist South Korean government and labeled it a U.S. puppet.

In the proposal, the North said the two could discuss South Korea providing fertilizers to the famine-stricken communist North and "other issues of mutual interest."

Chronic mismanagement of agriculture plus floods and drought have caused severe food shortages in North Korea. In January, the World Food Program appealed for $378.6 million in food aid for the North.

In the last government contact, the deputy prime ministers of both met in 1994 to prepare for the first ever summit between the two nations.

The summit was canceled after North Korean President Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack only a few weeks before it was to be held.

Relations between the two have been frozen since then, with the North rejecting all offers of government talks with the South.