SEOUL | Former President Jimmy Carter on Thursday said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wants a direct dialogue with his South Korean counterpart, but he then criticized Pyongyang’s human rights record.
“Chairman Kim sent word that he is willing to negotiate with South Korea or United States … on any subject at any time and without any preconditions,” Mr. Carter said at a news conference, concluding a three-day visit to the North.
“He specifically told us he is prepared for a summit directly with President Lee Myung-bak at any time to discuss issues between the two heads of state,” Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter was visiting North Korea with a group of former heads of state with the aim of promoting North-South reconciliation, resuming progress on the nuclear issue and investigating food shortages in the totalitarian nation.
Mr. Carter’s group did not meet Mr. Kim in person but did receive a written message from him just as they were departing for Seoul on Thursday.
Asked if he had raised the issue of human rights with North Korean officials, Mr. Carter instead turned his criticism upon Seoul and Washington.
“There are human right issues that relate to the policies of the North Korean government that I don’t think any of us on the outside can change,” he said. “But one of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and Americans and others to deliberately withhold food aid for North Korean people because of military or political issues unrelated is indeed a human rights violation.”
Other members of Mr. Carter’s delegation also pressed the issue, noting the vulnerability of children in particular.
Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland said one-third of North Korean children are stunted and 1 in 5 children are underweight.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson urged the EU, South Korea and the U.S. to decouple food aid from political issues, calling the situation in North Korea after heavy floods and a harsh winter “a very severe crisis.”
Some South Koreans detected a note of hypocrisy in Mr. Carter’s failing to raise the issue of human rights with the North, saying his self-appointed role as mediator was uncalled for.
“Carter is a kind of icon of human rights, but now he does not raise the issue in North Korea,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior researcher on North Korea at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification.