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.
The flightpath followed by Perry’s plane, which had taken off in Japan, had not been used since the Korean war. As it approached North Korean territory, Perry and his aides cracked dark jokes about whether anyone had remembered to tell the vigilant air-defence missile crews a few thousand feet below that they had an official invitation.
Perry was arriving at a moment of high tension. The previous year, the regime in Pyongyang had shown off its proficiency in missile technology with a series of tests, including the launch of the long-range Taepodong-1, which sailed over Japan before splashing into the Pacific. Officially, the Taepodong-1 was intended to launch a satellite, but it relied on the same technology and rocket power as an intercontinental ballistic missile. And the only way such a missile is of real military use is when it has a nuclear warhead in its nose cone.
By the time the US delegation arrived in Pyongyang, a 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, intended to prevent North Korea from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state, was fraying. Both sides were failing to deliver on their earlier promises. As part of the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the US had undertaken to supply 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year to the famine-ridden state, but the shipments had begun to arrive late, as the Republican-controlled Congress tried to block every fuel purchase. Meanwhile, the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans were behind schedule on their agreement to develop light-water reactors for civilian energy generation inside North Korea. For their part, the North Koreans appeared to be involved in furtive activities, which – along with the missile launch – convinced US intelligence agencies that they were seeking to continue making fissile material for a bomb.
Perry was carrying a letter from Bill Clinton to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, who had inherited power in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, the the founder of the nation and the ruling dynasty. Along with Clinton’s letter to Kim expressing hope for better relations, Perry carried an explicit mandate from Japanese and South Korean leaders, authorising him to speak on their behalf, and the outline of a peace plan. In return for a broad renunciation of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, North Korea would get more than oil and reactors – it would get a ticket back into the international community, including diplomatic ties and trade with the US.
And potatoes. In the run-up to the Perry mission, North Korean officials had signalled that Kim Jong-il was convinced that potatoes were the way out of famine. In return for allowing US weapons inspectors to visit a suspicious underground site shortly before Perry’s visit, Pyongyang had initially demanded $300m, but eventually settled for 100,000 tonnes of potatoes. [Continue reading…]