AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
SEOUL: Former US president Jimmy Carter met North Korea's de facto head of state during his peace mission to Pyongyang Wednesday and said in a blog posting that the North seeks better ties with Washington.
Carter and three other retired world leaders from a group called The Elders say their three-day visit aims to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, assess the North's food shortages and help revive six-party nuclear disarmament talks.
"We are hearing consistently... that the North wants to improve relations with America and is prepared to talk without preconditions to both the US and South Korea on any subject," the former president wrote in a blog dated Wednesday on The Elders' website.
"The sticking point -- and it?s a big one -- is that they won?t give up their nuclear programme without some kind of security guarantee from the US," Carter said in the post, which implicitly criticised US and South Korean policy and noted his warm reception in Pyongyang.
The group Wednesday met de facto head of state Kim Yong-Nam, the communist nation's official media reported, and delivered a gift for leader Kim Jong-Il.
[ For complete coverage of politics and policy, go to Yahoo! Politics ]
It was unclear whether the visitors would get their hoped-for meeting with Kim and his son and heir apparent Jong-Un. On Tuesday they held talks with Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun, who hosted a reception for them.
Efforts to improve North-South relations are deadlocked, with the North refusing to accept blame for two deadly border incidents last year.
The six-party talks have not been held since December 2008 and in May 2009 Pyongyang staged its second nuclear weapons test. In November it disclosed a uranium enrichment plant, a potential second way to build atomic weapons.
China has been pushing to restart the six-party forum that it chairs, but South Korea and the United States say the North must first mend cross-border relations.
Carter in his post praised the "sunshine" engagement policy of previous South Korean presidents. Current President Lee Myung-Bak abandoned the policy and linked major aid to nuclear disarmament, a stance which enraged the North.
Inter-Korean ties are "currently at rock bottom", Carter said, adding that Seoul and Washington refuse direct engagement with Pyongyang and are unwilling at present to relieve its "desperate" food shortage.
Carter, who during his 1977-81 presidency proposed the withdrawal of most US ground forces from South Korea, said the US status as the South's guarantor "creates enormous anxiety among the North Korean people".
"In order to succeed (in achieving peace) we will all need to work together -- especially the United States and South Korea," he wrote.
Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994 for talks with then-President Kim Il-Sung, after the United States came close to war with the communist state over its nuclear weapons programme.
He went again last August to secure the release of a detained US citizen.
Travelling with Carter on this trip are former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, ex-Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson.
They will fly to South Korea Thursday and hold a press conference before talks with officials.
Seoul has reacted coolly to what it calls a purely personal visit.
There are no plans at present for The Elders to meet President Lee in Seoul, a presidential spokeswoman said, despite their wish to do so.
Before any major dialogue takes place, Seoul wants Pyongyang to accept responsibility for the sinking of a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.
The North denies involvement in the sinking, and says its artillery attack on a South Korean island last November -- which killed four people including two civilians -- was provoked by a Seoul military drill.
China's nuclear envoy Wu Dawei held talks with the South's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan in Seoul Wednesday on ways to resume the nuclear dialogue, which also involves Japan and Russia.
Beijing has proposed inter-Korean nuclear talks, following by dialogue between the North and the United States, to prepare for a full six-party meeting.