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The Elders in North and South Korea

In April 2011 Jimmy Carter, Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Brundtland and Mary Robinson travelled to North and South Korea. With tensions high between the two countries and negotiations at a standstill, they hoped to encourage all parties involved to resume dialogue.

The Elders began their visit in Beijing, where they met senior Chinese officials and experts on North Korea. At a press conference they told reporters that they hoped to help reduce tensions between North and South Korea and learn more about reported food shortages in the North. Read The Elders' full statement

The late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung is venerated by his people and his image is found everywhere. This bronze statue is visited by hundreds of people every day who bring flowers and take photos.

The state dominates all aspects of life in North Korea. Permits are required to enter and leave the capital, Pyongyang, where the elite of the country lives. Read Mary Robinson’s blog about human rights in North Korea, in which she reflects on these vast state buildings in the context of a country facing a food crisis and widespread hunger.

The Elders met the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, who is the titular head of state – although all key decisions are believed to be made by Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung. The Elders discussed security issues and the looming food crisis with North Korean officials.

Jimmy Carter and Gro Brundtland met a family in Pyongsong City to discuss food and health needs. Citizens of North Korea receive food through a public distribution system. Even in this relatively prosperous town an hour from the capital, food rations have been reduced.

Food and fuel shortages are evident even in Pyongyang. Bicycles are often used as transport, many people move around the city on foot and private car ownership is rare.

The Elders were looking forward to a discussion with the Chairwoman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Democratic Women’s Union about how they could help implement new legislation on women’s and children’s rights – as had been requested in advance. Instead, they were treated to a lecture on the paradise for women’s rights that was said to exist in North Korea.

At Pyongsong City Hospital about one hour from Pyongyang, Dr Brundtland and President Carter discussed health care with doctors. There was no running water in the operating theatre and a child had recently been admitted with diarrhoea after eating wild grasses mixed with maize.

Nursing students in Pyongsong with President Carter and Dr Brundtland were perplexed by a question about gender equality. North Korea remains a highly traditional society – there are no male nurses. While training standards appear to be quite high, international donors fund North Korea’s infant vaccination program and provide much of the country’s basic medicines.

President Carter with students at Pyongyang’s Foreign Language University. English is the most popular language studied at the school. Many students said they wanted to be diplomats.

As they were leaving Pyongyang for Seoul, the Elders were unexpectedly called back to receive a last-minute message from North Korea’s leader, Chairman Kim Jong Il. He announced that he was prepared to resume talks with the South on all issues, without preconditions, and proposed that a summit-level meeting be held with his counterpart, President Lee Myung-bak.

The Elders were met by over 200 journalists when they arrived in Seoul. At a packed press conference they called for a resumption of food aid to help the people of North Korea and emphasised the importance of a reopening dialogue between North Korea, the United States and South Korea. Read the media release.

Yeomyung School in Seoul, South Korea, provides support for young people who have defected from North Korea. Most are orphaned or separated from their families and have travelled for months via China and South East Asia to reach Seoul. Having missed years of education, the school helps them to adjust to life in South Korea and prepares them for jobs or higher education. Read Mary Robinson's blog in which she describes meeting the students at Yeomyung.

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