HACKENSACK, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey restaurateur Robert Egan barbecues meat for a living, except when he acts as a self-appointed, unofficial conduit between the United States and North Korea.
In his book “Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from my BBQ Shack in Hackensack,” which will be released on April 27, Egan recounts how he forged an unlikely friendship with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations.
For a decade, he courted them with racks of ribs, hunting trips and by making occasional trips to help deliver humanitarian aid to Pyongyang, the capital of the impoverished, reclusive communist state that harbors nuclear ambitions.
“With diplomacy, sometimes everyone takes themselves so seriously,” Egan told Reuters during an interview at his restaurant Cubby’s BBQ, located a short drive from Midtown Manhattan. “You know, you have to let your hair down every once in a while.”
The decor of Cubby’s pays tribute to its owner’s second life. The walls are lined with framed photographs of Egan, a gregarious, broad-shouldered 52-year-old man with mixed Irish and Italian ancestry, posing with North Korean diplomats and newspaper articles that document their friendship.
“On a local, personal level there was a breakthrough. That’s a good thing,” said John McCreary, a retired analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and a North Korea expert, who counts Egan as a friend. But McCreary said it was not clear Egan had accomplished more than that.
A representative reached at North Korea’s U.N. mission who declined to give his name said he understood Egan had ties with the mission in the past, but “at the present time there are no people here with a connection to Bobby Egan.”
Egan describes himself as an adrenaline junkie who became preoccupied as a young man with U.S. prisoners of war unaccounted for in North Korea and Vietnam. Egan’s father is a Korean War veteran.
He said he began hanging around the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations in the late 1970s in a bid to get information about American POWs, and as a result Vietnamese diplomats became regulars at Cubby‘s.
Egan’s unlikely friendships first gained national attention in 1992 when a Vietnamese official studying at New York’s Columbia University, Le Quang Khai, announced his defection at a news conference held at Cubby‘s.
A year later, Egan said he was invited to meet a group of North Korean diplomats at a hotel near the U.N. headquarters in New York. North Korea had just announced it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Egan said they were looking for a friendly contact.
“It’s ludicrous that a government that has a nuclear weapon had to stoop to the level of having a guy who flips burgers for a living be the conduit between the United States and them,” Egan said.
Egan said he agreed to help, and over the years his friendship with former senior North Korean U.N. diplomat Han Song Ryol blossomed.
Han became a regular at Cubby‘s, where North Koreans can eat for free, and Egan said he would take Han on fishing trips and pheasant hunts and to New York Giants football games.
The two became “like brothers,” Egan said, with Egan schooling Han in profanity, the American mentality, and sharing his ideas for business ventures. Egan said he plans one day to go into business with Han, who is now back in North Korea, saying they plan to open a branch of Cubby’s BBQ in Pyongyang.
The relationship gave him a chance to play “in the big arena” usually occupied by heads of state and other “big shots,” Egan writes in the book, co-authored by Kurt Pitzer.
Egan said he also welcomed the chance to help the United States, and would regularly pass along information -- and even hair samples -- from North Koreans he befriended to U.S. intelligence officers.
“Certainly, the North Koreans were aware that I was passing information to the U.S. side. They would expect nothing different,” he said.
Egan said most of the agents he worked with have retired and moved on, so for now he said he is focused on running his restaurant and raising his two daughters.
But he is still outspoken on U.S. foreign policy, calling it counter productive to isolate a country like North Korea, which in Egan’s judgment would rather have a relationship with the global community than a nuclear bomb.
“The question is, how could we have let them get so desperate?” he said.
Egan’s book will be published by St. Martin’s Press.
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Will Dunham