‘Barbecue Diplomacy,’ North Korea and the United States

HACKENSACK, N.J. – Diners were chewing on pulled pork and baby back ribs here at Cubby’s barbecue restaurant on Sunday night when the owner, Robert Egan, learned that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, had died on Saturday of a heart attack.

“I got 50 calls from the press, and I was in consultation with the North Koreans all night,” Mr. Egan said, sitting in a booth on Monday in the no-frills rib restaurant he has owned since 1982.

The ripple effects of Kim’s death extended from Russia to China to Washington and, most improbably, to this restaurant, whose regular clientele is working-class locals – not Koreans.

But Mr. Egan, a 53-year-old high school dropout, says he has become something of an unofficial ambassador for North Koreans and a liaison between the two countries. He said that through “barbecue diplomacy,” he became “Kim Jong-il’s guy in New Jersey.”

Mr. Egan, a plain-spoken man of Irish-Italian extraction, has traveled several times since 1994 to North Korea, an isolated dictatorship that rarely welcomes foreign visitors. On one trip, he was honored with a pin with the image of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

At the ceremony, Kim Jong-il was on the platform. Mr. Egan said this was the closest he ever came to meeting him. But he credited Kim Jong-il with personally approving his visits to North Korea. Overall, he gave the leader a mixed review.

“He was a dictator, and like all dictators, he was no good,” he said, in a quotation cleaned of obscenities. “But he cracked the door open to the West, and he was better than his father.”

“The North Koreans are in mourning,” he said. “Every house in North Korea has a portrait of Kim Jong-il, and they worship it. They have a white linen towel that is only used to dust the portrait.”

He said American officials should seize upon the death as a diplomatic opportunity. Embassies should be opened. Trading partnerships should be explored.

“Now is the time, right now, to develop relations,” he said.

Mr. Egan ridiculed profiles of Kim Jong-il in the Western news media that rarely neglected to note the dictator’s taste for luxury.

“They always write that he loves cognac, cigars and women,” he said. “Of course he does — he’s a guy.”

The walls of his restaurant are covered with dozens of pictures of Mr. Egan posing with North Korean diplomats.

He explained how he made his North Korean connections after spending the 1980s trying to find American soldiers who went missing in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. He said he got to know Vietnamese diplomats, who eventually introduced him to North Korean diplomats at the United Nations.

The North Koreans were isolated and lonely in New York, and they warmed to Mr. Egan’s knockaround-guy affability. They accepted his invitations to go on hunting and fishing trips and to New York Giants games – and, of course, to eat ribs at Cubby’s, which sits on a nondescript stretch of South River Road, near the Bergen County Jail.

Mr. Egan became especially good friends with Han Song Ryol, who once served as a senior North Korean diplomat. Intelligence officials in Washington learned that a man who owned a barbecue restaurant in New Jersey was close to North Korean government officials, and Mr. Egan said he became a diplomatic intermediary between the United States and North Korea.

When the Central Intelligence Agency began asking for information on the North Koreans, Mr. Egan said he obliged. This was not high-level spy work, he said. “I flip burgers for a living; I don’t have the codes to the nuclear bomb,” he said.

Mr. Egan said he developed his hustler’s mentality and street savvy by growing up around mobsters.

“From my upbringing with the mob, I grew up knowing it’s all about, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” he said.

The fact that Mr. Egan managed to insert himself into diplomatic relations between a superpower and one of the only remaining communist regimes in the world is a reflection of how poor American intelligence is when it comes to North Korea, he said. The country, he said, is “the black hole of American intelligence.”

“I told them, ‘When a guy who flips burgers for a living is your main man in North Korea, something’s wrong,’” he said.

Mr. Egan said his interest in North Korean diplomacy was fueled by his patriotism and a desire for both countries to “understand each other better.”

“The only way to do that is to get inside the regime,” he said. “The better I know you, the better relationship I can have with you.”

Mr. Egan’s book, “Eating With the Enemy: How I Waged Peace With North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack,’’ was published last year. It thanks “the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.” An HBO movie based on the book is set to star James Gandolfini as Mr. Egan.

The book has chilled his activity somewhat with the North Koreans, although, he said, there is a female spy for North Korea who goes to Cubby’s to meet him – a “good spy.”

“You know how you have good bacteria and bad bacteria?” he said. “Well, you have good spies and bad spies. She’s a good spy.”

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