Carter, seen here with the North Korean foreign minister in Pyongyang, is not carrying any official messages [Reuters]
Jimmy Carter, the former US president, has arrived in Pyongyang hoping to meet North Korea's leader as part of a mission to discuss dangerous food shortages and stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
Carter was joined by Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president; Gro Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister; and Mary Robinson, a former Irish president, for the three-day visit to North Korea, which started on Tuesday.
The "Elders" delegation were not told ahead of their trip who they would meet, but said they hoped to see Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un.
Dismal ties between North and South Korea, which have ruined efforts to restart the nuclear talks, are also likely be on the agenda.
Relations have deteriorated since the North allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March 2010. Pyongyang shelled a South Korean island in November, killing two civilians and two marines.
South Korea is demanding an apology for both incidents before allowing deeper talks, but North Korea says it was not responsible for the sinking of the warship.
In 1994 Carter met Kim Il-sung, the North's founder and Kim Jong-il's father, when he eased a period of high inter-Korean tensions by helping to broker a US-North Korea nuclear deal.
Visiting as civilians
Kim Sung-hwan, the South Korean foreign minister, noted that the Elders are on "a purely personal visit".
"We don't have high expectations," he said in Seoul, responding to a question about the visit's influence in changing Pyongyang's stance.
"Many channels are open for dialogue between us," Kim Sung-hwan said. "Personally I don't see why it's necessary [for the North] would send a message through a third party or civilians."
The US state department said last month that Carter would not be carrying any official messages.
While the Elders tour the North efforts continue on several fronts to reinvigorate deadlocked six-nation nuclear negotiations.
A South Korean delegation was to meet US diplomats in Washington. Wu Dawei, Beijing's chief nuclear envoy, expressed hope for the talks to start "as soon as possible", while walking out of meetings with Seoul diplomats on Tuesday.
North Korea's chief nuclear envoy reportedly travelled to Beijing earlier this month to discuss restarting the talks, which involve the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.
Carter and his fellow former leaders' trip is focusing attention on North Korea's impending food crisis.
Years of poor harvests, a lack of investment in agriculture and political isolation have left the North severely vulnerable to starvation.
The average amount of food distributed by the government to each person has dropped this year from 1,400 calories per day to just 700, according the UN's World Food Programme.
Robinson, the Irish politician, said a recent UN study based on conditions throughout North Korea classified 3.5 million out of the country's 24 million people as "very vulnerable" to starvation.
She also expressed concern that conditions stood to worsen with cuts in food distribution.