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N.K.’s Kim ready to meet Lee at any time: Carter

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wants to hold a summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at any time, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said in Seoul Thursday.

“Although we did not meet with the leader of North Korea, when we had already departed from our guest home, we were asked to come back to receive a personal message,” Carter said in a press conference. He added Kim “specifically” said he wanted an inter-Korean summit, Yonhap news agency reported.

A group of former state leaders led by Carter arrived in Seoul Thursday to brief officials here on the results of their recent trip to Pyongyang, a move critics say will have limited impact as Carter did not represent the U.S. government.

Carter has played as a middleman between North Korea and regional powers in the past and was expected to deliver the reclusive state’s stance on resuming the stalled peace talks with Seoul as well as five other dialogue partners.

The visit to North Korea by the Elders delegation, also including former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson, came as regional powers have been escalating efforts to bring Pyongyang back to the stalled negotiating table. The Elders is a private organization of retired state leaders founded by former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The former leaders had met with North Korea’s No. 2 leader Kim Yong-nam and Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun, according to the North’s official media, which did not say whether they also held talks with leader Kim Jong-il and heir apparent Kim Jong-un.

An official in Seoul said the delegation “doesn’t appear to have met with the North Korean leader” during its three-day trip.

“No, I don’t think they met with him,” the senior official, who met with the delegation at a hotel in Seoul, told reporters on the condition of anonymity. 
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) shakes hands with South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek at the headquarters of the inter-Korean talks in central Seoul on Thursday before briefing Hyun on his recent visit to Pyongyang. (Joint Press Corps)
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) shakes hands with South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek at the headquarters of the inter-Korean talks in central Seoul on Thursday before briefing Hyun on his recent visit to Pyongyang. (Joint Press Corps)

The group led by Carter was scheduled to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek before heading back home Friday, officials here said.

Carter, a Democrat from the state of Georgia who was president from 1977 to 1981, is well regarded in North Korea and last visited the communist state in August 2002 to secure the release of a jailed U.S. citizen.

Officials in Seoul and Washington, however, appear skeptical about him playing a large role in restarting the long-stalled nuclear negotiations involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

In a media briefing Tuesday, Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan had downplayed the former president’s role, saying he does not see why North Korea would feel the need to deliver its message “via a third party.”

Despite widespread skepticism, however, interest is still high in what the Nobel Peace laureate achieved in the trip as respect for him still runs high in North Korea.

A North Korean expert here said the ex-president’s visit to Pyongyang and his possible meeting with the North Korean leader were “very valuable” at a time with few official contacts.

“In the past, South Korea played the role of the mediator between the North and regional powers. With the inter-Korean dialogue channel not functioning properly, we are in need for a mediator like former President Carter,” Paik Hak-soon of Seoul’s think tank Sejong Institute said.

In a blog entry posted Wednesday, Carter said he had consistently heard during his trip that the North wants to improve ties with the U.S. and is “prepared to talk without preconditions to both the U.S. and South Korea.”

Pyongyang, however, is unlikely to abandon its nuclear program without a security guarantee, he said on the Elders Web site.

“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.

Meanwhile, upon the visit by China’s chief nuclear envoy Wu Dawei, Seoul and Beijing have confirmed their “united position” that an inter-Korean nuclear disarmament dialogue should be held to pave the way for larger-scale denuclearization talks, according to the Foreign Ministry here.

International efforts to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization have been stalled for months as tensions between the two Koreas spiked following last March’s torpedoing of a South Korean warship and the November bombarding of a South Korean border island.

With China, host of the multinational dialogue, playing as the mediator, regional powers have been nearing agreement that nuclear envoys of the two Koreas should meet as the first step to resume negotiations among all six dialogue partners.

China hopes inter-Korean nuclear talks will lead to Pyongyang-Washington dialogue and ultimately the six-party talks, which have been suspended since December 2008.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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