The Japanese government today lifted its embargo on food aid to North Korea, another step toward thawing relations with its Stalinist government.

But the action does not mean Japan will start sending food to the famine-stricken country, only that the way is now cleared to begin formal talks with North Korea.

Preliminary meetings could start next week in Beijing, but there are many obstacles to overcome before normal relations can be restored. Those issues include North Korea's continuing weapons development and its alleged abduction of Japanese citizens, Japan's food and economic aid, and North Korean demands for compensation and an apology for Japan's 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.

Relations between the historical foes have been chilly for the past seven years since talks broke down over allegations that North Korean agents kidnapped Japanese citizens.

North Korea has been gripped by severe famine and economic collapse. Although massive starvation has been arrested, largely with food donations from the United States and China, malnutrition is widespread. Reports from the secretive country tell of adults eating grass and roots. There is little heat in homes and buildings, factories are closed and hospitals lack medical supplies.

Japan officially froze its food aid to North Korea after Pyongyang test-fired a rocket over Japan in August 1998. But, in fact, Japan has not sent food to North Korea since 1995.

At the urging of South Korea, the United States has tried to persuade North Korea to stop its missile tests and rein in its weapons development. In return, the United States has relaxed economic sanctions and improved diplomatic ties.

And it is moving ahead with the terms of a 1994 agreement, in which 12 countries promised to help North Korea build two power plants with nuclear technology that is difficult to convert to weapons use. In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, on Wednesday, the consortium is expected to sign a contract to complete the $4.6 billion project, of which $1 billion is to be paid by Japan.

Japan is reluctantly following the American and South Korean lead, and two weeks ago sent a parliamentary delegation to Pyongyang. The lawmakers recommended the government start official talks.

CAPTION: Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Mikio Aoki, announces that Japan will lift ban on aid to North Korea.