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SEOUL, South Korea — Former President Jimmy Carter, after a 48-hour visit to North Korea, sharply criticized the United States and South Korea on Thursday for their refusal to send humanitarian assistance to the impoverished North, saying their deliberate withholding of food aid amounted to “a human rights violation.”

Carter, who was not traveling on behalf of the U.S. government, had been invited to North Korea for discussions with senior political and military officials as a way to perhaps ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which he said were “at rock bottom.”

Carter, 86, traveled with two other former presidents, Mary Robinson of Ireland and Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, and former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. All four are members of the Elders, an independent group of world leaders established by Nelson Mandela.

Robinson echoed Carter’s concerns about what she called the “very serious crisis” over food supplies in North Korea because of a harsh winter, severe flooding, and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. She said the withdrawal of U.S. and South Korean food shipments had aggravated the already-dire situation, which had become, she said, “a matter of life-and-death urgency.”

Brundtland cited a lack of running water in hospitals, even in maternity and pediatric wards, and a deep shortage of what she called “essential medicines.” She said a third of all North Korean children were stunted because of malnourishment, which “also permanently affects their brain development.”

Carter and his group had asked to meet with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, but they were rebuffed. On their way to the airport Thursday, the group was called back to the guesthouse where they had been staying in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, for what they were told was an urgent message.

They were greeted there by Kim Yong Nam, the head of the North Korean People’s Assembly, who read them a written message from Kim Jong Il. The letter told the visitors that he was amenable to a summit meeting with Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president.

“He sent word he’s ready to negotiate with South Korea or the U.S. or with the other five powers on any subject at any time and without preconditions,” said Carter, making reference to the other members of the so-called six-party talks that focused on the dismantling of North Korean nuclear programs. The six-party process ended in 2009 when North Korea withdrew.

Carter and his group were also denied a requested meeting with Lee, the South Korean president.

South Korea has insisted that North Korea apologize for the sinking of a warship, the Cheonan, which killed 46 of its sailors last March. The apology has become a precondition before South Korea will hold substantive bilateral talks with the North.

North Korea has denied any role in the sinking, and Carter said Thursday that senior North Korean officials told him they would “not apologize or admit culpability for the Cheonan incident.”