From 2010-2013 The Elders worked to help improve inter-Korean relations, encourage dialogue on security and nuclear issues, and highlight worsening humanitarian conditions in North Korea.
Although an armistice signed in 1953 effectively brought an end to the Korean War, no peace treaty was ever signed and relations between North and South Korea remain tense to this day. In 2010, two serious military incidents (sinking of the Cheonan vessel and shelling of Yeongpyeong Island) underlined the high risk of a renewed outbreak of major conflict.
In recent months, North and South Korea have engaged in informal talks but there has been no sustained, official dialogue. The Six-Party Talks on nuclear issues, which include North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have stalled since 2009 and little progress has been made on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jimmy Carter discuss health care with doctors at Pyongsong City Hospital, North Korea, April 2011
Citizens in North Korea receive food primarily through a public distribution system. However, after poor harvests, adverse weather conditions and a decrease in humanitarian aid, there have been food shortages in North Korea for some years. Stunting and malnutrition are serious problems among the North Korean population.
International aid to North Korea has always been low, and has declined even further in recent years. Some international donors are concerned that food aid might not reach the most needy and vulnerable people, and could be diverted to the military. However, food remains both a basic humanitarian need and a fundamental human right. The World Food Programme and other humanitarian agencies operating in North Korea need urgent support from the international community, especially to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable people are met.
There are reports of grave human rights violations in North Korea, including poor conditions in detention camps, large numbers of political prisoners, public executions and constraints on freedom of expression and opinion. The families of North Korean citizens who attempt to escape or seek asylum are often punished. The United Nations’ human rights representative on North Korea has never been allowed to visit the country. Concerns over human rights also include inadequate access to health care.
The Elders hope that peace negotiations between North and South Korea and moves to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula will achieve security and stability for both countries and for the wider North East Asian region. Within North Korea, the Elders want to see greater respect for human rights and clear indications that the government prioritises the welfare of its citizens above all.
The Elders believe conflicts cannot be resolved without dialogue. Peace on the Korean Peninsula is possible, but requires all parties to commit to talk to each other on all outstanding issues.
The Elders call on the international community to help address urgent humanitarian needs in North Korea including on food and health issues, stressing that it should not be linked to political and security considerations. Regarding food aid, donors should be reassured by the government’s commitment to improve transparency and monitoring of food distribution, and North Korea must fulfil this obligation. Above all, food is a basic human right – international donors cannot ignore a population facing hunger and starvation because they disagree with its government.
The Elders emphasise that the North Korean government has a fundamental responsibility to provide for its own people, if necessary through appropriate policy reforms.
The Elders launched their Korean Peninsula initiative in April 2011, when a delegation led by Jimmy Carter visited China and North and South Korea to help ease tensions and address humanitarian and security challenges. Read the trip report here.
As independent Elders, they do not represent any government or seek to intervene in official processes such as the Six-Party Talks. Instead they hope to promote an atmosphere conducive to dialogue and persuade international donors to address food and health needs in North Korea.
The Elders also seek to build a dialogue with the North Korean government on its responsibilities to improve humanitarian conditions in the country.
Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Mary Robinson and Jimmy Carter standing in front of a bronze statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, in North Korea, April 2011
Jimmy Carter led a delegation to North Korea, South Korea and China, accompanied by his fellow Elders Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mary Robinson, to encourage dialogue and address security and humanitarian concerns. In all three countries they met senior government officials, diplomats, UN representatives, humanitarian agencies, researchers and think tanks. They were also able to meet people affected by the situation in North Korea, including refugees who had fled to South Korea.
Martti Ahtisaari and Gro Harlem Brundtland later travelled to Brussels to brief senior European Union officials on their findings. The group continues to engage in private advocacy and diplomacy on the key issues, particularly food aid to North Korea, and monitor developments closely in the region.