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BEIJING — Japanese negotiators last month noticed something unusual when they sat down across the table from government and Red Cross officials from North Korea. The North Koreans, diplomatic sources now say, were being uncharacteristically gracious. While asking Japan for several years’ worth of food aid, the North Koreans refrained from their usual sharp criticism of Japan and repeatedly expressed gratitude for Japan’s food assistance given from 1995 to 1997, the sources said. The change in posture came during intergovernmental preparatory talks for establishing diplomatic ties and separate bilateral Red Cross negotiations on humanitarian issues. In both sets of talks, the Japanese participants often used the word “abduction” when discussing the 10 or more Japanese who Tokyo says were spirited away by North Korean agents in seven incidents during the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea has repeatedly and strenuously denied the allegations in the past, but this time the North Korean side did not take offense at the term, the sources said. North Korea did not elaborate on the amount of food it wants or when it will require it, the sources said. However, the officials gave a detailed account of last year’s grain production and said it would fall short of the country’s needs by between 1.2 and 1.5 million tons, according to the sources. Japan lifted its freeze on food aid to North Korea in December, removing the last in a series of sanctions imposed following North Korea’s August 1998 launch over Japan of what Tokyo says was a ballistic missile. In announcing the lifting of sanctions against North Korea, Tokyo said it would not immediately resume food aid and that it first intends to resolve issues such as the disappearances.

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