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Truth Leem, Pool, Associated Press
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, left, and South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek shake hands before their meeting at the Special Office for Inter-Korean Dialogue in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 28, 2011. Carter said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is willing to hold direct talks with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak. Carter said he and three former European leaders didn't have a hoped-for meeting with Kim during their three-day trip.

SEOUL, South Korea — Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wants direct talks with South Korea's president — an offer unlikely to be accepted until Pyongyang takes responsibility for violence that killed 50 South Koreans last year.

A summit would be a major step toward smoothing over animosity fueled by the bloodshed, and a personal call from Kim is notable, though North Korea regularly pushes for the resumption of aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks. It generally wants to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, however.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has also floated the possibility of direct talks with Kim — but only if the North takes responsibility for the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang and an artillery attack on a South Korean island.

Carter told reporters hours after he returned from the North that he and three former European leaders didn't have a hoped-for meeting with Kim during their three-day trip.

But he said that Kim sent them a written personal message as they were leaving, saying he's prepared for a summit meeting with the South Korea at any time. Carter said North Korean officials expressed deep regret for the deaths on the South Korean warship Cheonan and for the civilians killed in the island shelling.

But, he said, it was clear that "they will not publicly apologize and admit culpability for the Cheonan incident." North Korea denies sinking the ship, despite an South Korea-led international investigation that blamed the country. It says it was provoked into the island shelling by South Korean live fire drills.

Carter says the goal of his visit is to contribute to greater understanding between North Korea and the outside world, but that it's up to officials to make real progress.

When asked why he thought Kim Jong Il did not meet with them, Carter noted that the South's president did not grant their request for a meeting either.

"We don't question the decision of a head of state about the priorities they set for their own schedule," Carter said.

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 this time in nuclear negotiations.

Carter said earlier 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 an online message posted during the trip to the North.

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. Both the U.S. and the South have denied plotting an invasion.

Carter didn't address the case of Jun Young Su, a Korean-American being held in North Korea, reportedly on charges of carrying out missionary activity. He had said earlier he would not raise the case, though the former president flew to North Korea last year to free another American jailed in Pyongyang.

Carter, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson met with the North's foreign minister and the president of the North's parliament.