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.
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 De Niro'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."
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