NEW YORK CITY - Before Dennis Rodman and so-called “basketball diplomacy,” there was Bobby Egan and BBQ diplomacy.
Egan, 55, is a New Jersey restaurateur who spun a mind-bending tale in his 2010 memoir “Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack” (St Martin’s Press), ranging from interrogations under the influence of sodium pentothal by security agents in Pyongyang to bass fishing trips in Jersey with North Korean officials.
He acted as an unofficial (but officially tolerated), semi-authorized conduit between North Korea and the United States, eventually developing a close personal relationship with former North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Han Song Ryol — as well as a somewhat more workmanlike relationship with the FBI, to whom he funneled back information and the odd piece of evidence, like a hair sample plucked from Han’s shoulder following a meal at said BBQ shack, Cubby’s.
How exactly Egan came to be involved in all this has not, and cannot, be fully explained — perhaps even by Egan himself. What we do know is that in 1979, Egan contacted the Vietnamese mission to the UN, hoping to uncover news about remaining American prisoners of war. He eventually developed friendships with the officials he met, through whom he was subsequently introduced to Han Song Ryol and then-DPRK Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Ho Jong in 1993. That’s when Egan, who described himself to me as “just another f–kin’ jerkoff in New Jersey flipping ribs,” began an improbable saga which included, he maintains, an attempt to help North Korea sell off its nuclear weapons program to the U.S. (Egan says the Bush administration refused to negotiate.)
Though Egan “decided to step aside four or five years ago” from his role as freelance citizen diplomat, he still informally consults with his North Korean contacts.
“When they’re seeking advice, they come to me and I advise them on a limited basis,” Egan told me at Cubby’s, located not far from Bergen County Jail, this past weekend. “But I don’t have the working relationship with them that I once had.”
Still, Egan said he recently spoke to a government official in Pyongyang, whom he declined to identify, on the country’s current nuclear stance.
“I told them, the rhetoric is too harsh,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten you what you wanted, has it? The more I grow up, the more I’m learning that that f–kin’ gangster mentality never got me anywhere.”
Indeed, to Egan’s apparent dismay, North Korea hasn’t followed the path upon which he thought he helped set the leaders of the country during the “all-consuming 15, 16 years I was with them.”
“I took them to a good place,” he explained. “Showed them the light, showed them what Western culture is like — politically, economically, spiritually, okay? I introduced them to senators, congressmen, put mechanisms and relationships in place to go ahead with the fundamental development of their country. When the business people started to come in, I thought it wouldn’t be long ‘til they were off and running toward economic reform. That being said, over the last two years, the Hermit Kingdom has once again become the Hermit Kingdom.”
That Hermit Kingdom and Kim Jong Un did welcome former NBA star Dennis Rodman, three Harlem Globetrotters and a TV crew to Pyongyang last month. And while Rodman’s trip has been largely mocked as a fool’s errand, Egan, who was not involved with the trip, sees it as largely positive.
“Dennis is a great guy,” Egan told me. “I know Dennis through a very close friend who I grew up with. I mean, Dennis, he’s just f–kin’ out there. He went there, he made a couple of bucks, he got close to a dictator, and just by him getting close to this guy, we’ve learned a lot about him. Just the fact that he let Dennis get as close to him as he did, tells us in the intelligence world a lot about him. That in itself, you’ll never hear any intelligence analyst say it was a bad thing for him to go there. F–k, they went, they partied, I think it was a good thing. And they love basketball over there, they f–kin’ love basketball.”
Newly tightened sanctions aside, Egan, who, incidentally, said he never attended a basketball game with Kim Jong Il, believes the recent bellicosity coming from North Korea is hurting the country’s economy in other, subtler ways — beginning with the effect Kim Jong Un’s threats have had on the DPRK’s foreign aid stream and the New York-based diplomats tasked with maintaining it.
“They have a hard life here, they have to produce, and certainly this rhetoric doesn’t help them,” Egan said. “They have access to UN money, have all kinds of projects they could be dipping into, and New. lt’s like a mob crew, they’re here to earn and earn cash. They gotta get these grants through, these allocations of humanitarian money through, they need to get money for the regime and this just makes their job a whole hell of a lot harder. You know, until your fiscal affairs are in order, you’re not safe, and if you’re not safe, you can’t operate from a position of strength.”
Of course, Egan said, “they can’t tell Kim Jong Un, ‘Hey, tone it down — you’re hurting us.’ Yeah, that’s all they’d have to f–kin’ say.”
He’s been focused primarily on beef, pork, and chicken for some time now, but Egan remembers the time he spent with the North Koreans fondly.
“They had a great life in New York…with me. We went to shows, ballgames. We had a good time, but we produced, too — we worked hard and we played hard. That was my philosophy. Give them a life’s lesson in American culture, show them what this country is about — not through me, but through other experiences they had with so many other Americans that had lasting impressions on some of them. Problem is, I went through the hands of 60 people at the UN, another 100 people who were part of delegations that came and went, so I had access to maybe 160 North Koreans, but there’s 28 million of them.”
On Egan’s relationship with the North Koreans, John McCreary, a retired analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency told Reuters in 2010, “On a local, personal level there was a breakthrough. That’s a good thing.”
On the other hand, Charles Pritchard, former U.S. Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea, said of Egan’s book, “There is so much that is not true and so much that is exaggerated. It is more entertainment and fantasy than reality”. “I certainly got nothing from him,” he told Reuters.
What is certain is that Egan was able to show his North Korean friends a hell of a good time — something Egan says the U.S. government readily acknowledged.
“Look, the CIA told me, ‘Its not because of f–kin’ you, so tone down that big head,” Egan explained. “This is because of the people that you know and the people that happen to be in your life — New York Giants, New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets, athletes, politicians, celebrities. How you have so many amazing people in your life, we don’t know. But these are the people you need to expose them to.”
Unfortunately for his North Korean colleagues, the ribs Egan exposed them to in New York won’t be available in Pyongyang anytime soon. Though it has been widely reported that Egan would be opening a Cubby’s in North Korea, Egan told me those plans were apparently never actually on the table, describing it as “good-natured stuff, ribbing.” What is however happening, Egan said, is a movie based on his book, which is “in progress” and will be produced by Robert Deniro’s Tribeca Films and HBO.
FRIEND AND FOE
Though he calls Ambassador Han the “best friend he ever had,” Egan still appears to feel conflicted about certain aspects of their relationship.
“The way they were as human beings was not acceptable to me, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to a lot of North Koreans,” he told me. “Since I’ve been involved with them, between one and three million people have starved to death, hundreds of thousands have been killed in the camps, but it’s not just the camps — if they’re short on food, they just won’t feed a whole region. But the hierarchy eats lobster and caviar.”
However, Egan speaks with a certain fondness for the country he said left him “scared sh-tless” on his first trip there.
“I can go to North Korea tomorrow, I can go to the mission tonight, it’s a relationship that was built over years, my work speaks for itself,” Egan told me. “It’s like the Mafia, you become an earner, they put you on the shelf, and you’re protected. We had a lot of mutual respect, all the hard work we put in, the sacrifices we all made, that can never be diminished.”
Naturally, one would expect at least a mention of defection during Egan’s years with the North Koreans, especially as Egan was the one who helped Vietnamese diplomat Le Quang Khai defect to the U.S. in 1992 (with Le announcing his defection at a news conference held at Cubby’s). Egan says it never came up, except when he was instructed never to bring it up.
“North Koreans don’t defect because their families back home would get killed,” Egan told me. “But [those posted here] also don’t necessarily buy into our system. They see what’s wrong here. Just because they’re the best and the brightest doesn’t mean they’re not lazy. They’ve been getting everything from their government their whole lives. Here, you gotta make it on your own. It’s not for everyone.”
Ironically, Egan, an ardent supporter of gun ownership and personal self-defense, put forth a surprisingly dovish suggestion on how America might help to hasten the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program.
“Everybody has the right to self-preservation,” Egan said. “We have pre-emptive nuclear strike plans here in the United States, right? Same thing. Maybe we should lead by example and get rid of ours.”