Barbecue Diplomacy with North Korea

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How did a semi-successful barbecue guy from New Jersey become an important figure in the tenuous relationship between the United States and North Korea?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now, an introduction to a man who is surely one of the most unusual characters in international diplomacy - Bobby Egan owns and runs Cubby's, a popular barbeque joint in Hackensack, New Jersey - that's his day job. But on the side, this native New Jersean has become the leading advocate for North Korea in the U.S.

NPR's Adam Davidson went to Hackensack to find out how a barbecue cook becomes an official ambassador for North Korea.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Bobby Egan's story gets really weird really quickly. So let's start with the easy stuff - the barbecue.

Mr. ROBERT EGAN (Cubby's BBQ Ribs Restaurant): Well, I spent 20 years cooking in that broiler until Louie learned the job and the I let him do it.

DAVIDSON: Egan has stopped cooking five years ago. Now, he commands the front of the house, taking orders.

Unidentified Man#1: What have we got?

Unidentified Man#2: Barbecue -

Unidentified Man#1: Slice her on the (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man#2: Slice it, yeah.

DAVIDSON: Cubby's is an all-American, completely unpretentious barbecue joint. There's nothing fancy; it's a big, brightly lit room for eating a lot of really good, really messy meat.

Mr. EGAN: If you're a weight watcher, this isn't the place to come. But if you're relapsing from weight watching, Cubby's is the place; you're welcome here. We're all what America's about - fat cats(ph), that's what I like with my restaurant. If you're on a diet, you know, I prefer you go down the road.

DAVIDSON: A lot of bikers come here and so do local families for special night of bingeing. And right in the heart of this all-American temple of overindulgence. There are these photographs hanging over the big picture windows.

Mr. EGAN: Yeah, I know (unintelligible) because of, you know, my past experiences with North Korea.

DAVIDSON: Like that's a Korean Army officer?

Mr. EGAN: Yeah, that's one of the top generals in Korea.

DAVIDSON: And that's a picture of you in Pyongyang?

Mr. EGAN: Yeah, in Pyongyang. Yeah.

DAVIDSON: The pictures are kind of small and high up, so a few customers know that Bobby Egan is North Korea's man in the U.S. Not that Egan hides it - he'll tell anyone how he tries to help North Korea. He's become a sort of unofficial ambassador. He says he's in contact with government officials, though he declines to be specific. Egan says that twice the North Korean regime authorized him to offer a full end to their nuclear programs in exchange for money and diplomatic relations with the United States.

He says that back in the Clinton years, he used to have phone conversations with presidential advisers while he was at Cubby's register, taking orders. But he says, he does a lot more than just negotiate for North Korea.

Mr. EGAN: I'm a trusted friend. I have access to the country. You know, so there's a lot of difference. We're friends, but whichever role as a friend, you're a friend. You know, there's a lot of roles friends play. You know, not just one role and too specific. We're friends, which is multifaceted.

DAVIDSON: Egan hosts trips. He says he's taken several prominent U.S. politicians to the country, although he says most of them don't want their names made public. He was the official host for the North Korean team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and, he likes to hint, that he often plays a more covert role.

Mr. EGAN: Well, I don't want to get into specific details at this time because I'm still right now on a, you know, an operation mode with North Korea.

DAVIDSON: So what percentage of what you've done and what you know can you tell me right now?

Mr. EGAN: Right now, about one percent.

DAVIDSON: There's one obvious question about Bobby Egan - is any of the stuff he says true? Can a barbeque cook from Hackensack really be one of North Korea's leading representatives in the U.S?

Charles Jack Pritchard was President Clinton's advisor on North Korea. He told me that Bobby Egan did, indeed, serve as an intermediary between the Clinton White House and the North Koreans. Egan says relations haven't been as good with the Bush administration. He says he still talks with officials, but his influence has diminished.

A North Korean representative to the United Nations, Kim Yong Gil(ph), said Bobby Egan is, quote, "one of our good friends. He's trying to make bridges between the people of my country and the people of the U.S." And part of being a friend, for Egan, means defending Kim Jong Il, a man many Americans believe is enriching himself at the expense of his desperately poor nation.

Mr. EGAN: I didn't go on his wallet and count as many (unintelligible) dollars, okay. But I've never seen a leader that didn't live good. I'll tell you what, George Bush is living a lot better than me, okay? I'm not going to judge their political system.

DAVIDSON: So how did Bobby Egan get into this? He says he never had any particular interest in Korea, but in the 1980's, Egan had some friends who were Vietnam vets. They wanted help on the POW-MIA issue, and Bobby Egan, who never fought in Vietnam, somehow became sort of a leader. He traveled to Communist Vietnam a few times, made friends with some Vietnamese officials.

Mr. EGAN: And then through that, the Koreans sort of got me from the Vietnamese and, you know, they made some inquiries, about, you know, having somebody go back and forth, being somebody that they can trust.

DAVIDSON: Over the years, Egan has been to Pyongyang many, many times, he says. He's never met Kim Jong Il, but he says he received a personal letter from the leader, and knows his top aides. He was once even offered a palace in North Korea if he would move there, but Egan says he likes New Jersey.

Some critics have said that Egan has made business deals with North Korea; that he's getting rich off of all this. Egan says that's just not true.

Mr. EGAN: You know, I've sort of made money along the way, you know. I'm sort of - there's always private consultancies that are offered to me for - but (unintelligible) it had nothing to do with business.

DAVIDSON: Egan had no direct role in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. He steps in when there are no talks - when the U.S. and North Korea can't seem to find any way to connect. So who knows, maybe soon, someone in Pyongyang will call Cubby's in Hackensack and tell Bobby Egan North Korea needs its friend.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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