PYONGYANG, North Korea – Ex-President Jimmy Carter and three former European leaders have been feted by North Korea's foreign minister, but it was unclear Wednesday whether they would meet top leader Kim Jong Il to discuss ways to restart long-stalled nuclear talks.
Carter, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson had talks with Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun at a state guesthouse in Pyongyang ahead of a reception Tuesday night, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a two-sentence report.
The leaders said before the trip that they were in the dark about their itinerary but hoped to meet with Kim and his son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un. The delegation was not expected to speak to the media until it reaches Seoul on Thursday, and the North has provided few details.
The three-day visit comes as diplomats struggle to find a way to resume six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that the North walked away from in 2009.
Also likely on the agenda is the dismal relationship between North and South Korea, which has hampered efforts to restart the talks on the North's nuclear programs.
Animosity has soared between the neighbors since North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March 2010, killing 46 sailors. The North shelled a South Korean island in November, killing two civilians and two marines. The North also revealed a secret uranium enrichment program late last year that would give it a second way to make nuclear weapons.
Before flying to Pyongyang, Carter said he didn't intend to raise the case of Jun Young Su, a Korean-American being held in North Korea, reportedly on charges of carrying out missionary activity. Carter flew to North Korea last year to free another jailed American.
The U.S. State Department said last month that Carter would not be carrying any official messages.
South Korea has reacted coolly to the trip, with its foreign minister saying that it doesn't have high expectations that it will change North Korea's attitudes.
Carter traveled to North Korea during a period of high tension in 1994, when he met with then-leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father, and helped broker a U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal.
He last visited North Korea in August to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China. Carter did not meet then with Kim Jong Il, who was on a rare visit to China, his nation's biggest ally and aid provider.
Carter's trip comes amid efforts on several fronts to restart the stalled nuclear negotiations. China's top nuclear envoy arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for talks, while a South Korean delegation was to meet with U.S. diplomats in Washington.
Carter and the other former leaders said they also plan to discuss food shortages in North Korea.
Years of poor harvests, low investment in agriculture and political isolation have left the North severely vulnerable to starvation, with the average amount of food distributed by the government to each person dropping this year from 1,400 calories per day to just 700, according the U.N.'s World Food Program.