An unprecedented US mission to Pyongyang in 1999 promised to defuse Kim’s nuclear threat. But it all came to nothing – and then the hawks took power. By Julian Borger
Pyongyang International is one of the world’s quieter airports. The country’s chronic isolation means that there are not many places to fly, and few foreigners keen on visiting. At least until a new terminal was built in 2012, many of the flights on the departure boards were just for show, giving the appearance of connection with the outside world. They never actually took off.
Against this melancholy backdrop, one day in late May 1999, something quite extraordinary happened. An official plane bearing the blue-and-white livery of the US government and emblazoned with the stars and stripes landed and taxied along the runway. The plane was carrying a former defence secretary, William Perry, who had been brought back from retirement by President Bill Clinton to try to end the frozen conflict between the US and North Korea. With a small group of aides, Perry was embarking on a mission that he hoped would avert a return to the armed stand-off that had brought the two countries to the brink of war five years earlier.