Former US president Jimmy Carter arrived in North Korea Tuesday on a visit aimed at easing inter-Korean tensions, assessing food shortages and encouraging the revival of nuclear disarmament talks.
Carter and three other retired world leaders accompanying him have said they hope to meet leader Kim Jong-Il and his son and heir apparent Jong-Un, although nothing has been arranged.
The North's official news agency announced their arrival in a one-sentence report but gave no details. The delegation, from a group known as The Elders, was in China earlier and will go on to South Korea Thursday.
Efforts to improve North-South relations are deadlocked, with the North refusing to accept blame for two deadly border incidents last year.
Six-party talks on the North's nuclear disarmament have been stalled since December 2008. Pyongyang quit the forum in April 2008 and staged its second nuclear weapons test a month later.
Late last year the North disclosed a uranium enrichment plant, giving it a potential second way to make atomic bombs and lending renewed urgency to efforts to restart negotiations.
The North's persistent food shortages will also be a key topic, after UN food agencies estimated that six million people -- a quarter of the population -- urgently need aid.
"It is a horrible situation there and we hope to induce other countries to help alleviate (the food crisis), including South Korea, which has cut off all supplies of food materials to North Koreans," Carter told journalists in Beijing Monday.
"When there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer the least."
Carter first visited Pyongyang in 1994 for talks with founding President Kim Il-Sung after the United States and North Korea came close to war over the communist state's nuclear weapons programme.
He visited again last August to secure the release of a detained US citizen but did not meet Kim Jong-Il.
Some analysts believe Carter will seek to secure the freedom of a Korean-American detained since last November and facing trial for unspecified crimes against the reclusive nation.
A source has said the man was involved in missionary work.
"At a time when official dialogue with (North Korea) appears to be at a standstill, we aim to see how we can be of assistance in reducing tensions and help the parties address key issues including denuclearisation," Carter said in a statement earlier this week.
Cross-border tensions have been high since the South accused the North of sinking a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.
It denied involvement but last November shelled a South Korean island and killed four people, an incident that briefly raised fears of war.
China has been pushing to restart the six-party forum that it chairs. South Korea and the United States say the North must first mend cross-border relations.
China's nuclear envoy Wu Dawei was due in Seoul on Tuesday for talks on ways to resume the dialogue, which also involves Japan and Russia.
Carter's delegation also includes former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, ex-Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson.