AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
SEOUL: A group of former statesmen led by ex-US president Jimmy Carter on Sunday said they were in Beijing on the way to North Korea in a visit aimed at easing tension on the Korean Peninsula.
A delegation of the Elders group of retired state leaders began the six-day trip to China, Pyongyang and Seoul to discuss issues including denuclearisation and reported food shortages in North Korea, the group said in a statement.
The four-member group, led by Carter, includes former Finish president Martti Ahtisaari, ex-Norwegian prime minister Harlem Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson, it said.
The delegation will start their Pyongyang visit on Tuesday before moving to Seoul on Thursday to "meet senior officials, members of civil society, academic experts and foreign diplomats," said the group.
"At a time when official dialogue with DPRK (North 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 denuclearisation," the statement quoted Carter as saying.
Brundtland expressed a concern at "the acute shortage of food" reported by the North and UN aid agencies.
"Any immediate humanitarian needs must be met - but we also want to discuss longer-term food security and health issues that are so important to economic development," Brundtland was quoted as saying.
United Nations food agencies who recently visited the North say more than six million people -- a quarter of the population -- urgently need food aid.
It was not immediately clear whether the delegates would meet with the North's leader Kim Jong-Il.
Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic sources, said on Sunday South Korea's foreign minister Kim Sung-Hwan and unification minister Hyun In-taek, Seoul's pointman in cross-border affairs, would meet the delegates upon their request.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak is also likely to meet the former statesmen if requested, it said.
Cross-border tension has been acute since the North's bombardment of a border island that killed four South Koreans including two civilians in November, which sparked a brief fear of war.
The first attack on civilians since the 1950-53 Korean War came weeks after Pyongyang disclosed an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant to visiting US experts.
The North claimed it was a peaceful energy project but experts said it could be reconfigured to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Six-party disarmament talks with the North have been on a standstill since Pyongyang walked out in April 2008 and staged its second nuclear test a month later.
Carter has mediated in North Korea before. In 1994 he visited Pyongyang after the United States came close to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.
Last August the 2002 Nobel peace prizewinner visited Pyongyang to secure the release of jailed US citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes.
Some analysts believe Carter will also seek to secure the freedom of a Korean-American detained by the North since last November and facing trial for unspecified crimes against the nation.
A source has said the man was involved in missionary work.