Former President Carter arrived in North Korea on Tuesday with a to-do list that includes breaking the long impasse over the nation's nuclear program, nudging the regime forward on human rights and possibly securing the release of an imprisoned U.S. citizen.
Carter is hoping to secure a face-to-face meeting with leader Kim Jong Il, who snubbed him in August when the former president traveled to North Korea to pick up another American, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a Christian activist who was held for illegally entering the country.
But a meeting seems likely this time around given the luminaries with whom Carter is traveling — former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson — and Kim's fondness for photo opportunities with visiting dignitaries.
Speaking with reporters Monday in Beijing, Carter was coy about whether he had been promised a meeting, saying only, "It would be a pleasure if we could."
The 86-year-old Carter said his primary concerns were humanitarian.
"In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least," he said. "We believe that the last 50 years of deprivation of the North Korean people to adequate access to trade and commerce has been very damaging to their economy, as well as some problems they may have brought on by themselves."
In a rare admission of failure, North Korea has been actively soliciting food aid in recent months. The U.N.'s World Food Program is putting the finishing touches on an emergency aid package that is expected to be announced shortly.
"We believe that it is very, very important to ensure that women and children and the elderly do not suffer because of a political situation," added Robinson.
The former government leaders are traveling as part of a group called the Elders, which was founded in 2007 by former South African President Nelson Mandela.
"These people are not running for office. They don't have to impress anybody. So they are able to take risks," said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert with International Crisis Group who was in Beijing to advise the delegation on the North Korea trip. "The situation with North Korea is so bad right now that anything they can do to ease tensions or help the humanitarian situation would be a big improvement."
The delegation had been invited last year to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but the trip was postponed because of the torpedo attack on a South Korean vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island, incidents that led to dozens of South Korean deaths.
South Korea has reacted coolly to the Carter mission. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek on Monday accused North Korea of exaggerating its shortages in order to stockpile food for a 2012 celebration marking the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung's birth.
This is Carter's third trip to North Korea. In 1994, he helped to lay the groundwork for a deal with the Clinton administration that was supposed to put a freeze on North Korea's nuclear program. He returned last year to secure Gomes' release.
Pyongyang has confirmed it is holding another U.S. citizen, Jun Young-su, a Korean American businessman from California. He is charged with proselytizing, which is strictly forbidden in North Korea. Unlike Gomes, he is believed to have entered legally on a visa.