SEOUL, South Korea — Jimmy Carter left North Korea on Thursday with a message that Pyongyang had demanded U.S. security guarantees in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
But a key part of the former president's three-day visit — a hoped-for meeting with leader Kim Jong Il and his son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Un — was still in doubt. Neither Carter nor North Korea's state media provided immediate word on whether he'd met the Kims.
Carter, who traveled with three former European leaders, said in a blog post that North Korea insisted during the visit that it wants to improve relations with the United States and is willing to talk with Washington and Seoul without preconditions.
"The sticking point — and it's a big one — is that they won't give up their nuclear program without some kind of security guarantee from the U.S.," he wrote in a message posted Wednesday night.
That's an apparent reference to North Korea's claim that its atomic weapons programs deter the United States and South Korea from staging a northward invasion that would allow Seoul to rule the entire Korean peninsula.
Carter is well-respected in North Korea for his role in helping work out a 1994 nuclear deal that may have averted a war. But officials in Seoul and Washington have put little stock in his ability to engineer a breakthrough in long-stalled, acrimonious nuclear negotiations.
Han Sung-joo, South Korea's foreign minister during Carter's 1994 trip, said in an interview that "both South Korea and the U.S. government are a little bit wary of Mr. Carter trying to represent North Korea in a better light than it actually is."
Despite widespread skepticism, however, interest was still high in whether the Nobel Peace laureate might thaw ties between North Korea and the outside world.
Carter and the former leaders of Finland, Norway and Ireland met with the foreign minister and the president of the North's parliament.
Carter's group waded into a difficult situation: It has been more than two years since nuclear negotiators from the United States and neighboring nations last met with the North in an effort to persuade it to abandon its atomic weapons programs.
Since then, the North has conducted missile and nuclear tests and proudly unveiled a new nuclear facility that could give it another way to make atomic bombs. Late last year, the North Korean military rained artillery shells on a front-line island, killing two South Korean civilians as well as two marines. Seoul also accuses Pyongyang of sinking a warship in March 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
North Korea has also made progress in building what could be a light water nuclear power reactor, according to commercial satellite imagery taken in early March but released Thursday by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. While ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, such a reactor gives the North reason to enrich uranium that could be used in atomic weapons.
The United States says it won't push forward on nuclear talks until South Korea is satisfied that the North has taken responsibility for last year's bloodshed. North Korea has shown no willingness to apologize and denies involvement in the ship sinking.
Enter Carter, 86, whose credentials as a North Korea specialist largely stem from his drama-filled trip to Pyongyang in 1994. At the time, the North had expelled international nuclear inspectors and was threatening to destroy Seoul. Many feared war would erupt.
Carter, traveling with then President Bill Clinton's approval, met directly with Kim Il Sung, the country's revered founder and father of the current leader, just weeks before the president's death.
Those talks set up U.S.-North Korean negotiations that resulted in a deal that called for freezing the North's nuclear facilities in exchange for proliferation-resistant power reactors. The accord fell apart in 2002, after the George W. Bush administration claimed North Korea had embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program.
Carter traveled this week as a private citizen. The State Department said he was carrying no special messages.
South Korea played down the visit, saying it didn't have high hopes that Carter's trip would change North Korea's attitudes.
But Carter's trip could also be valuable at a time when, with few official contacts, determining Pyongyang's motivations and goals is often guesswork and left to unofficial envoys.
Government talks are preferable, Joel Wit, a former State Department official responsible for implementing the 1994 deal, wrote recently. "But at a time when they aren't talking, unofficial channels of communication run by seasoned practitioners can be indispensable."