Carter’s Elders go to North Korea

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Prime Minister of Norway Dr. Gro Brundtland and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (from left to right) attend a press conference in Beijing yesterday before leaving for Pyongyang. [AFP/YONHAP]

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and three others from a group called The Elders will start a three-day trip to North Korea today to encourage Pyongyang to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Seoul and to address the country’s food shortage.

The trip comes in the middle of a whirlwind of diplomatic movement around the Korean Peninsula, as South Korea, the United States and China make efforts to break the deadlock between the North and South.

“At a time when official dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea appears to be at a standstill, we aim to see how we may be of assistance in reducing tensions and help the parties address key issues including denuclearization,” Carter said yesterday during a press conference in Beijing.

Carter’s group had said earlier yesterday that “it is in the interests of millions of people that dialogue [between North and South Korea] is re-established soon to address escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

“Clearly there is a great level of mistrust and suspicion between North and South Korea,” said former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is on the team headed to Pyongyang. “But the stakes are too high to allow this standoff to continue.”

Talks between South and North Korea have been officially at a standstill since February when North Korea stormed out of working-level military talks.

South Korea and the United States have since called for North Korea to show a “sincere” attitude if it wants to resume inter-Korean dialogue, which would be the key to talks with other countries and eventually the six-party talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

South Korean Minister of Unification Hyun In-taek said yesterday that inter-Korean talks would be “hollow” if the two Koreas do not discuss the two attacks by North Korea last year.

The Elders also expressed their desire to focus their trip on the North’s need for food, referring to a recent report from the UN World Food Programme estimating that 6 million North Koreans are in need of food.

“We are very concerned about the acute shortages of food reported by the government of North Korea and humanitarian agencies,” said former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Brundtland, another Elder and a former director general of the UN World Health Organization. “We also want to discuss longer term food security and health issues that are so important to economic development.”

Carter told journalists, “It is a horrible situation there and we hope to induce other countries to help alleviate [the food crisis], including South Korea, which has cut off all supplies of food materials to North Koreans.”

“When there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer the least,” Carter added.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson is the fourth Elder going to Pyongyang.

Carter said he wishes to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and possibly his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un. The former U.S. president’s last trip in August 2010 to Pyongyang ended without a meeting with Kim Jong-il, who was visiting China at the time.

The group will travel to Seoul this Thursday to brief South Korean officials on their trip to Pyongyang.

By Christine Kim []

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