BEIJING - Former President Jimmy Carter said Monday that he hopes to meet with North Korea's reclusive leader during a visit aimed at assessing severe food shortages and discussing the revival of nuclear disarmament talks.
Carter is making the three-day visit to North Korea this week accompanied by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson. The four are members of a group of retired world leaders called the Elders founded by former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Carter said the group "would like very much" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, as well as his son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Un, but was unsure whether that would happen.
"We have no indication that we will do so, but it would be a pleasure if we could," he said at a news conference in Beijing prior to his departure for Pyongyang on Tuesday.
The former president said he was not "prejudging in advance" his discussions on restarting talks on North Korea's nuclear programs, which have been stalled for the past two years.
Pyongyang is believed to be holding out for diplomatic concessions from Washington before committing to returning to the six-nation talks, under which it has pledged to dismantle its programs in return for food and fuel aid.
Carter did not respond when asked if he was carrying a message from the U.S. administration and made no mention of Korean-American Jun Young Su, who is being held in North Korea, reportedly on charges of carrying out missionary activity.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Carter as saying in an interview that he wasn't carrying any messages and didn't intend to raise Jun's case. The U.S. State Department said last month that Carter would not be carrying any official messages.
Carter is well-regarded in North Korea and met in 1994 with the North's then-leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father, and brokered a U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal.
He last visited North Korea in August to secure the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing into the North from China. Carter did not meet Kim then because the leader was on a rare visit to China, his isolated, impoverished nation's biggest ally and aid provider.
Carter's trip comes amid efforts on several fronts to reinvigorate the nuclear negotiations. China's top nuclear envoy was due to travel to Seoul on Tuesday for talks, while a South Korean delegation was to meet with U.S. diplomats in Washington.
North Korea's top nuclear envoy reportedly traveled to Beijing earlier this month to discuss restarting the talks, which two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
At Monday's briefing, Carter also criticized long-standing economic sanctions imposed on the North's hardline communist regime, saying they were adding to suffering among ordinary citizens amid a severe drop-off in food aid to the North.
"In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least," he said. "And we believe that the last 50 years of deprivation of the North Korean people to adequate access to trade and commerce has been very damaging to their economy, as well as some problems they may have brought on by themselves."
Years of poor harvests, a lack of investment in agriculture and political isolation have left North Korea severely vulnerable to starvation, with the average amount of food distributed by the government to each person dropping this year from 1,400 calories per day to just 700, according the U.N.'s World Food Program.
Former Irish President Robinson said a recent United Nations study based on conditions throughout North Korea classified 3.5 million out of the country's 24 million people as "very vulnerable" to starvation and that conditions stood to worsen with cuts in food distribution.
"We believe that it is very, very important to ensure that women and children and the elderly do not suffer because of a political situation," Robinson said.
Carter described the North's food problems as "a horrible situation" and said the group hoped to convince other nations to step up shipments, mentioning in particular South Korea, which has cut off all food aid to its neighbor.
Carter, who was president from 1977 to 1981, said his delegation was invited by top North Korean leaders, but declined to identify them by name.