North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Thursday proposed holding a summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said in Seoul following a three-day trip to the communist state.
"He specifically told us that he is prepared for a summit meeting directly with President Lee Myung-bak at any time to discuss any subject directly between the two heads of state," Carter said, referring to a message he said he received from Kim hours earlier.
"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.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson, who traveled to the North with Carter and two other former Western leaders, confirmed that the delegation had a written message read to them "to be conveyed."
"It was a surprise for us that we were asked to come back," she said, adding that the message "included the possibility of a summit."
The delegation, comprising members from a group called the Elders, spoke after they arrived in Seoul on a private jet from Pyongyang and met with a series of senior officials here.
South Korea, which has repeatedly said it is open to a summit with North Korea, had yet to respond to the proposal. On Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan had downplayed the Elders trip, saying Pyongyang should rather speak to Seoul directly.
Kim Jong-il "sent word he is willing and the people of North Korea are willing to negotiate with South Korea or the United States or (the other powers involved in six-party talks) on any subject at any time and without any preconditions," Carter said.
The six-party talks, which have not been held in 2008, also include Japan, Russia and host China.
Under the two previous administrations that provided unconditional aid to the North, the South had two summit meetings in Pyongyang.
The relations between the Koreas, however, plunged to the worst level in years after President Lee took office in 2008 with a policy linking aid to denuclearization efforts by North Korea.
North Korea has harshly reacted. In November last year, the North bombarded a South Korean border island, killing four people.
The South also holds the North responsible for the sinking of one of its warships in March last year, which claimed the lives of 46 sailors.
Carter, who defused tensions on the Korean Peninsula by brokering a dramatic U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal in 1994, said Pyongyang is "very willing to discuss nuclear issues and any other military issues directly with South Korea, including at the highest level."
The comments came amid a looming prospect that the North would propose holding a meeting of the nuclear envoys of the two Koreas as part of a Chinese plan to revive the six-party talks.
Expressing his understanding for Kim Jong-il's failure to meet with him, Carter refrained from raising any speculation that the 69-year-old North Korean may be sick.
Kim reportedly collapsed in 2008 after he suffered a stroke.
Since then, he has accelerated his efforts to transfer power to his third son, Jong-un, whom Carter had hoped to meet but did not.
In 1994, Carter also helped arrange summit talks between Kim's late father Kim Il-sung and then-South Korea's President Kim Young-sam. The summit never took place because Kim Il-sung suddenly died of heart failure just weeks after Carter met him.
Carter did not speak Thursday of an American that the North said earlier this month it was preparing to indict for an unidentified crime against the communist regime. In his previous trip to the North last August, Carter brought back a U.S. man that had been detained for months after illegally entering North Korea.
Deploring chronic food shortages in North Korea, Carter lashed out at South Korea, saying Seoul "deliberately" withholding food aid to North Korea constituted a human rights violation.
He also said North Korean officials have expressed "deep" regrets for the deaths last year of South Korean nationals blamed on the North, but argued Pyongyang would never claim responsibility.
"The desire of the Elders is that these offers (by North Korea) will be accepted by South Korea, by the United States" or by the other members of the six-party talks that seek to denuclearize the North through aid, Carter said.
The Elders largely consists of former heads of state, brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to support global peace and humanity. The members who traveled to the North also included former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.