SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is ready to hold direct talks with South Korea but the isolated state will not apologize for two deadly attacks on the divided peninsula last year, former President Jimmy Carter said on Thursday.
Carter returned from a three-day trip to Pyongyang having failed to meet Kim, but he and three other former state leaders — known as the Elders — received a last-minute message from the leader saying he was willing to talk with anyone at anytime without preconditions.
“He specifically told us he is prepared to meet directly with (South Korean) President Lee Myung-bak any time,” Carter told a press conference in Seoul.
If Kim was willing to discuss nuclear and other military issues with South Korea, it would mark a change in policy — the North has previously said it would only discuss them with the United States.
“Chairman and General Secretary Kim Jong-il said he is willing and the people of North Korea are willing to negotiate with South Korea or with the United States or with the six powers on any subject any time and without any preconditions.”
Earlier however, Carter on his group’s website (www.theelders.org) appeared to suggest that there were preconditions for six-party talks aimed at disarmament.
“The sticking point — and it’s a big one — is that they won’t give up their nuclear program without some kind of security guarantee from the U.S.” he said.
The North has repeatedly stated it wants an assurance the United States will not attack it, as well as a peace treaty.
Some 30,000 American troops are based in South Korea, which is technically at war with its neighbor, having only signed a truce to end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, also said senior North Korean officials had “expressed deep regret ... for the loss of life of those on the Cheonan (warship) and of the civilians who were killed on the Yeonpyeong island,” but did not apologize for last year’s incidents.
The South has insisted that the North apologize for its actions, although the North denies it sank the naval vessel. Seoul demands the North take responsibility for the attacks if inter-Korean talks are to make progress.
Carter added that the North would probably never admit responsibility for the incidents, which spiked tensions on the peninsula to their highest level in years.
Seoul and Washington say stalled regional nuclear talks can only proceed once the two Koreas hold successful bilateral talks.
The North has said it wants to rejoin six-party talks, which it walked out of over two years ago in anger over a new round of U.N. sanctions for its second nuclear test and a long-range missile test.
Carter’s visit comes as momentum builds toward a resumption of the aid-for-disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
Shuttle diplomacy between the six-party envoys has increased in recent weeks, and China’s nuclear envoy and his South Korean counterpart agreed in Seoul this week on a stage-by-stage process for restarting the talks.
But both Seoul and Washington are skeptical about the North’s sincerity about denuclearizing, citing its revelations last year of major advances in a uranium enrichment program which could open a second route to make an atomic bomb.
Experts say the North already has enough fissile material from its plutonium program to make about eight nuclear bombs.
Few people believe the secretive North will ever give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying they serve as a deterrent against attack as well as being the ultimate bargaining chip.
Uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa, in particular the events in one-time nuclear weapons aspirant Libya, have only served to strengthen the North’s belief in a nuclear capability.
North Korea said last month Western air strikes against Libya showed how it had become more vulnerable after scrapping its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
But at the same time, the North’s leadership will also be acutely aware of the West’s resolve to pursue regime change in authoritarian states such as Libya, and it will be anxious not to invoke an Asian repeat.
Carter’s team also called on the international community to provide food aid to the impoverished North saying it “was a matter of life and death urgency.”
Editing by Yoko Nishikawa