North and South Korean negotiators met Thursday in the Chinese capital but failed to find a way to restart stalled talks on aid to the impoverished North, a South Korean embassy official said.

"The differences between the two sides were still too great and the meeting ended with no progress," the official said after heads of the two delegations met for almost two hours to try to break the stalemate."They agreed to try to meet again," the official said, but added that there was no schedule for the next attempt to restart talks.

North Korea's chief delegate, Jon Kumchol, on Thursday was seen leaving the Beijing hotel where the talks began Saturday and where the Southern delegation is staying.

The talks, called by North Korea to discuss chemical fertilizer aid to help with spring planting, were the first high-level North-South dialogue in four years.

Formal contacts broke down on Tuesday over South Korea's insistence it would only offer fertilizer if the communist North made a commitment toward allowing reunions of families divided since the 1950-53 Korean War.

After the talks collapsed Tuesday, negotiating teams agreed to remain in Beijing for two days to try to rekindle the discussions. The embassy official said he was not aware when the South Korean delegation intended to return to Seoul.

Since the start of talks on Saturday, South Korea has held out the prospect of fertilizer and other aid but has linked assistance to "reciprocity" from North Korea on the question of reuniting the families and other bilateral issues.

Seoul has demanded the North agree to establish a mail exchange center at the border truce village of Panmunjom and a timetable for re-unions of divided families, many of whose members are elderly.

Scores of divided families were able to reunite briefly at Panmunjom under Red Cross auspices in 1985 but have otherwise been completely cut off for nearly five decades.

North Korea's Jon has accused Seoul of trying to "politicize" the issue of fertilizer, which was urgently needed for spring planting.

The political wrangling over fertilizer and family visits is taking place against a steady drumbeat of grim assessments of the food situation in North Korea.

In Washington on Tuesday, Andrew Natsios, executive director of World Vision Relief and Development, endorsed estimates by a South Korean Buddhist relief group that 3 million North Koreans had died during the famine in the past 33 months.

Judy Cheng-Hopkins, the World Food Program Director for Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said after a recent trip to North Korea that she could not confirm that figure but neither could she dismiss it.

"The worst isn't over and I think no matter how optimistic the prognosis, there is going to be a food deficit again next year . . . and possibly the year after that," Cheng-Hopkins said in Rome.

North Korea on Wednesday marked the 86th birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, who founded the Stalinist state in 1948 and ruled it until his death in July 1994.