North Korean BBQ Diplomacy: How Current Tensions Are Hurting New York's 'Mob Crew'
Before Dennis Rodman and so-called "basketball diplomacy," there was Bobby Egan of Hackensack.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on NKNews.org.
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."
Bobby Egan (center) welcomes North Korean friends to Cubby's
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."
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