Who Are These 'Elders' Conducting Diplomacy in North Korea?

The group of former world leaders wants to solve the world's most difficult problems

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We hear this week that "The Elders"--specifically former Irish President Mary Robinson, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (pictured above)--are in North Korea to discuss denuclearization, easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and food shortages with government officials. We also hear that Carter is blogging from Pyongyang, writing today that he hopes "this visit by the Elders will help North Korea become less mysterious to outsiders." But how about the mystery surrounding the Elders themselves? Who are these aged alphas trekking across the globe to solve the world's most confounding problems? How old and esteemed must you be to become an Elder yourself? We've set about to answer some of the lingering questions.

The story of the Elders, we're told, begins, improbably, with a conversation on a plane between the entrepreneur Richard Branson and the rock star Peter Gabriel. Drawing inspiration from African village societies where elders used their wisdom to resolve conflicts, the two British celebrities approached former South African President Nelson Mandela, who brought the Elders into being in 2007 with the help of $18 million in funding from various supporters. The group's ten members currently include Archbiship Desmond Tutu and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (Branson told The New York Times that the seed of his idea actually dates back to 2003, when he asked Mandela and Annan to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down in Iraq.)

In inviting members to join, the Elders say they look for people who are independent and "have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership." There is no age requirement, but most members are septuagenarians (a quick search suggests the oldest member is Mandela, at 92, and the youngest members are Burmese opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi and Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, at 65). The only Elder to leave so far has been microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, who stepped down in 2009 because of the "demands of his work." Yunus is now battling with the Bangladeshi court system to keep his job as the head of Grameen Bank.

When the group was first formed in 2007, the TimesĀ noted that many members were "early and harsh critics of President Bush and American foreign policy, particularly toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," though the Elders insisted they were not influenced by ideology. And while the Elders say the fact that they no longer hold political office affords them independence, others say this fact renders them powerless. As The Telegraph wrote back in 2007, "Sceptics ask whether a group of 12 ageing and largely retired figures can possibly exert real influence over the world's most intractable conflicts," noting that Mandela himself rarely leaves Johannesburg. The paper added that since the Elders work in private, it will be difficult to measure their "success or failure."

Here's a video from the Elders giving an overview of their mission:

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