SEOUL — North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is willing to meet with world leaders “without preconditions” and even hold a summit with the president of rival South Korea, former President Jimmy Carter said Thursday following a three-day trip to the North.

However, Carter said the North is unlikely to admit “culpability” for the sinking of the warship Cheonan last spring, or apologize for its attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November, which South Korea is requiring before holding talks. Fifty people, including four civilians, died in those two attacks.

“They will not apologize,” Carter said during a news conference in Seoul. “But they express deep regret... for the loss of life of those on the Cheonan and also the civilians who were killed on Yeonpyeong Island.”

Carter and three other former heads of state — part of an activist group called “The Elders” — traveled to North Korea to discuss resuming food aid to a country in the midst of a worsening famine. The group was invited by North Korea, Carter said, but did not meet with Kim, despite their request to do so.

Kim’s message was delivered in bizarre fashion to the group. The Elders were enroute to the airport to leave when they received notice they should return to their guesthouse for a personal message from Kim.

At the house, a top minister — one of several high-ranking officials they met with during the trip — read them a written statement from Kim telling them he was prepared for talks with other nations, as well as a summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak “at any time,” Carter said.

North Korea has previously pushed for direct talks on nuclear disarmament with the United States.

The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela, consists of 10 global leaders who no longer hold office but work on peace and human rights issues. Carter was accompanied on this trip by the former leaders of Ireland, Norway and Finland.

The group urged the U.S., South Korea and the other nations who participate in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks – China, Russia and Japan – to resume dialogue with the North.

The leaders also pleaded for the international community to resume food aid to the North, where flooding during the last harvest and a harsh winter have contributed to what aid organizations have described as a dire food shortage.

“It is a matter of utter life-and-death urgency,” said former Irish President Mary Robinson.

Gro Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, said there is no running water, even in hospital wards. Additionally, North Koreans have access to only 30 percent of the “essential medicines” they need. One-third of children show signs of stunted growth, which can affect their brain development, said Brundtland, a doctor and former director-general of the World Health Organization.

The U.S. and South Korea have halted food aid to the North because it would not allow the delivery of the food to be monitored. North Korea now says it will allow greater monitoring of food supplies.

“Those impediments have now been removed,” Carter said. “There are no impediments.”

Carter, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, offered scathing criticism of the U.S. and South Korea for their decisions to withhold food aid from the North, saying nobody outside the North can control what the isolated regime does, but the North Korean people still need food.

“For the South Koreans and the U.S. government and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korea people ... is really indeed a human rights violation,” he said.

Carter said the group also requested a meeting with South Korea’s Lee, but the request was denied.

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