12.22.11 6:18 AM ET
The North Korea Whisperer: Rib-Cooking New Jersey Restaurateur Bobby Egan
Bobby Egan’s exploits as an unofficial ambassador to North Korea will lead to a movie from Robert De Niro. By R.M. Schneiderman.
At about 10 o’clock last Sunday night, Bobby Egan, 53, the owner of a barbecue restaurant in Hackensack, N.J., was sitting at home, when he received several phone calls from blocked numbers.
He didn’t pick up.
“I thought it might have been the Koreans,” he said. “I didn’t want to deal with it; I thought someone needed a ride.”
By the Koreans, he means the North Koreans, namely officials from the country’s mission to the United Nations. Improbable as it may sound, for close to two decades, Egan has served as unofficial ambassador to the hermit kingdom—breaking bread (and eating ribs) with officials, taking them to sporting events, and at times serving as a liaison between North Korea and various U.S. intelligence agencies.
Not long after Egan received the phone calls on Sunday, he says, he learned that the North Koreans were indeed trying to get in touch with him—but not for a ride. Instead, as an American friend informed him via text message, Kim Jong-il, the country’s supreme leader, had died of a heart attack. And the regime was entering a dangerous and confusing new phase in its short history.
Egan, a burly man who bears more than a slight resemblance to Robert De Niro, quickly called the North Korean mission and offered his condolences. He had never met Kim Jong-il, but once had shared a stage with him during one of his four visits to Pyongyang.
Speaking to various officials Sunday night, Egan says, he offered his advice—whether they wanted it or not (and apparently they didn’t take it)—on how to handle the American media.
“I talked about the criticism,” Egan said, referring to obituaries of the deceased leader. “That they don’t need to lash out at that or take it the wrong way. There isn’t a good face that we can put on a dictator. There is going to be a concern about the void and you need to address those issues and get instructions from Pyongyang, but you need to respond. You need to accept people’s calls, do some selective interviews.”
Less than a week after Kim jong-il’s death was announced, pundits and government officials in the U.S. and abroad have scrambled to make sense of what his death will mean for the future of North Korea, and whether the ascension of his young son, Kim Jong-un, will usher in a new era of peace between America and its communist adversary or bring about further hostilities.
For Egan, whose restaurant, Cubby’s Barbeque, was a favorite of various North Korean officials, Jong-il’s death and the power vacuum it has created represents an unmistakable opportunity for peace.
“This is our time,” he said. “Right now. Nixon had the courage to do it with China. Mr. Obama should have the courage to do it with the DPRK.”
In fact, Egan believes America should immediately establish diplomatic ties with the North and help the country with some of its economic woes.
“They are starving for diplomatic relations,” he said. “They want that more than anything. You can tell Barack Obama to send an ambassador over to Cubby’s. I’ll put him on a plane and I’ll have him in the embassy in Pyongyang and they’ll sign any paperwork they have to be recognized by the U.S. in a minute. And they’ll do that before Kim Jong-il is buried in the ground.”
Nevertheless, Egan concedes that Jong-un, North Korea’s new leader, is ill-prepared for the task of leading the highly impoverished and isolated nation, and that more established figures from within the military regime are already jockeying for power. “The Kim dynasty is over,” he said. “It’s not going to go forward with his son.”
Egan says that before last year, when Jong-il indicated that his younger son would become his successor, Jong-un was never mentioned in his conversations with diplomats at the North Korean mission to the U.N.
“He is not revered,” Egan said. “I’m not even sure they knew who he was until Jong-il [made his announcement]. To worship somebody like the North Korean people worship Kim Jong-il, it has to be put in their heads for generations. They worshipped him like I worship Jesus.”
Egan said he told this to his longtime friend, Han Song Ryol, the former North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, among others.
“I told the Koreans: There is nothing magical or mystical about Kim Jong-il,” Egan said. “This is a family business and the family business in North Korea is the Kim family. You are being taken for a ride. In these times when there are millions of North Koreans…starving, you appoint a 28- year old kid to run the country? You gotta be kidding me.”
The response of various officials?
“They said you ain’t going back [to Pyongyang] any time soon,” Egan said.
Still, he says, he remains on good terms with the government, and continues to be close friends with the mission’s staff.
“Korean culture and American culture are different,” he said. “I’m of Irish and Italian descent, and they feel sorry for me because of that. They look at us as so mixed, and think there is no identity or origin in the U.S. I tell them, that’s our strongest point. But Americans, we don’t understand how culturally rich and alike they are, and how comfortable that makes them in their country.”
How Egan formed a friendship with North Korean officials such as Ambassador Han is a bizarre and improbable tale. As The New Yorker described in a 2007 profile of Egan, the New Jersey-native missed the Vietnam War, but became obsessed with the possibility that American soldiers were left behind—something the U.S. government has long denied, despite many alleged sightings.
After high school, Egan dabbled in roofing. He thought of joining the mafia, but with an Irish last name, realized he wouldn’t go far, and eventually started a restaurant with a friend. All the while, he continued thinking about the possibility of American POWs in Asia, and so, in the early 1980s, over a period of several months, Egan began courting the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations, calling and showing up, and offering declarations of friendship.
Eventually he earned the trust of various officials, taking them to football games or on fishing trips and even served as their unofficial chauffeur. As he told Vanity Fair in 2007: “They were lost in New York City. I couldn’t believe the feds and the C.I.A. didn’t exploit their human nature of being lonely, being bored, sitting around for years on end and not being able to go to a movie because their resources were very short, you know? So I chose that area to exploit them, to make them comfortable here.”
It was through his friendship with Vietnamese officials, that Egan developed a similar relationship with the North Koreans, beginning in the early 1990s. And knowing they were similarly lonely, poor and isolated in America, he courted them in the same way.
All the while, however, Egan says, he was working for the FBI, which he informed the Koreans. “I let them know: Don’t tell me anything that you wouldn’t want me to tell them,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair. (The FBI, according to the article, eventually stopped asking for Egan’s service, as the agency reportedly found him, among other things, “uncontrollable.” Egan says he has nevertheless maintained contact with officials from the bureau).
Egan’s ultimate goal, however, was to see if he could find any American POWs in North Korea. He has yet to succeed or definitely prove that there are indeed American prisoners left in there and in Southeast Asia, but along the way, he says, he has managed to work with NGOs to deliver millions of dollars’ worth of aid to North Koreans.
“I’m not too proud of too much of what I’ve done in my life,” he said. “But I got to people who were in need in North Korea and it saved hundreds of lives. I don’t think the Koreans will forget that. I am a true friend and they are true friends of mine.”
Such a good friend, in fact, that Egan wrote a book about his experiences and his friendship with Ambassador Han, entitled: Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack.
The New Jersey native says he asked Korean officials for the okay to publish the book and pursue the movie, and that they had no qualms. And so, while he remains a critic of the North Korean regime, he remains thankful to Kim Jong-il for that.
“He cracked the door for me and let me walk through,” Egan said. “I’m grateful for that. I think His Excellency will be remembered as someone who opened the door to the West, and that’s something we didn’t have under his father.”