Asia-Pacific

Ex-President Jimmy Carter calls for North Korea aid

Jimmy Carter arrives in Pyongyang on 26 April 2011
Image caption Former President Jimmy Carter has paid several visits to North Korea in the past

Former US President Jimmy Carter has accused the US and South Korea of human rights violations against North Koreans by withholding food aid.

Mr Carter made the comments after a three-day private visit to Pyongyang.

He also said North Korea was willing to hold unconditional talks with South Korea - a message conveyed in a note from leader Kim Jong-il.

South Korea wants the North to apologise for two deadly attacks last year before talks can restart.

It blames North Korea for sinking its warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives - something Pyongyang denies. It also wants an apology for the shelling of a border island in November that killed four people.

The US has stressed that Mr Carter's visit was "strictly private", while the South Korean foreign minister said he did not have "high expectations" that the former leader could deliver a break-through.

Food fears

Mr Carter travelled to North Korea with three former national leaders from The Elders group and held talks with Kim Jong-il's deputy, Kim Jong-nam.

Speaking in Seoul after his return, he said North Korea needed food aid.

Image caption North Korea was hit by severe famine in the 1990s as its economy and crop base collapsed

"One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the US and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation," he said.

South Korea and the US have both suspended food shipments to the North in the past few years as a result of worsening political relations and concerns over monitoring the aid.

But, says the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Seoul, North Korea has been warning of especially severe food shortages this year as a result of the harsh winter.

North Korea has been dependent on food aid since famine in the mid-1990s.

On Wednesday Samaritan's Purse, a US-based charity that surveyed food needs in North Korea in February, warned that food stocks in some parts of the country would run out by June.

On dialogue, Mr Carter said that although he did not meet Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader "sent word that he and the people of North Korea are willing to negotiate with South Korea or the United States... on any subject at any time without preconditions".

"He specifically told us that he was prepared for a summit with [South Korean] President Lee Myung-bak at any time," he said.

But he said that although the communist nation expressed "deep regret" over the warship sinking and the shelling, it did not apologise for either event.

Wider disarmament talks involving the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas broke down over two years ago on the issue of how North Korea's dialogue partners could verify that the information it had presented on its nuclear work was accurate and complete.

China is pushing for the talks to restart but both the US and South Korea say inter-Korean tensions must be eased first.

Mr Carter returned without a US national detained in the communist state, businessman Jun Young-su who is reportedly accused of conducting missionary work.

The former president last year secured the release of another US citizen jailed in the country, but said before he left that he did not expect to raise the case of Mr Jun on this occasion.