Justice Carol Hunstein (from left), former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter.
John Disney/ ALM

Former President Jimmy Carter said Thursday that he has “spent a lot of time in the last few days dealing with the North Korean problem” over escalating tensions that have raised the specter of a nuclear war. The former president also said he has offered several times to go to North Korea to talk to Kim Jong-il.

Carter made the statements during a conversation with Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein and Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, at a conference of the National Association of Women Judges in Atlanta. He said he has spent “about 20 hours discussing with their leaders what they really want”—an apparent reference to his missions to North Korea during the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“We need to be talking to them,” the former president said, adding that he’s told the Trump administration he’s willing to talk to the North Koreans on the government’s behalf.

Carter has made trips to North Korea before. In 1994, he served as a U.S. emissary to North Korea on behalf of the Clinton administration. What the North Korea wants most, Carter said, is a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War fought more than 60 years ago.

Since 1953, the U.S. has had a cease-fire with North Korea, “which means the war is technically going on still,” Carter said. “I have spent more than 20 hours talking to their leadership, and they always want to have direct talks with America that leads to a peace treaty where we pledge ourselves with international support to witnesses that we won’t attack them as long as they are peaceful,” he said. “That’s what they want. We refuse to do that.”

“I certainly condemn them for their verbiage,” he continued, but added, “We are a lot to blame.”

Instead of offering the North Koreans a guarantee that the U.S. will not attack them, Carter said, “We continue to threaten to attack them. We are continually fanning the flames that might lead to war.”

Carter said that years ago, when he met with North Korea’s former leader, Kim Il-sung—the grandfather of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-il—Kim Il-sung agreed to subject their atomic programs to international inspections and installed cameras that would allow compliance-monitoring. The U.S. subsequently defaulted on a commitment to make fuel oil available to North Korea to compensate for the power lost by curbing its nuclear programs.

Carter also was critical of former President Barack Obama’s imposition of harsh sanctions, including a decision to “cut off all food aid.”

Carter said he learned on a subsequent visit to the country that adults were receiving rations limited to 600 calories a day. Children’s rations did not exceed 300 calories a day. Carter called them “starvation rations.”

“The U.S. has done everything it possibly can to destroy the economy of North Korea,” he added. “We do everything we can to boost the economy of South Korea.”