NJ man specialist in barbecue, N. Korean diplomacy
In this Thursday, July 18, 2013 photo, Bobby Egan poses for photos outside his BBQ restaurant, Cubby's, in Hackensack, N.J. Egan had a well-documented, decades-long friendship with North Korean diplomats posted to the United Nations in New York. His book about his experiences dealing with the North Koreans, called “Eating with the Enemy,” was optioned by HBO, and actor James Gandolfini was set to portray Egan in the film before his untimely death last month. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) — The way Robert Egan sees it, New Jerseyans and North Koreans have a lot in common. They're family-centered, fiercely loyal and often misunderstood by outsiders.
It's those similarities that this high school dropout turned barbecue pit-master says allowed him to be a successful liaison between the United States and North Korea for years, a role that has eluded even seasoned diplomats.
Egan formed an unlikely friendship in the early 1990s with the North Koreans who were posted to their country's United Nations mission in New York, following an introduction by Vietnamese officials he'd met through his activism on the search for missing American soldiers.
"There is a lot of North Jersey in the North Koreans. They're sensitive, they're caring people," Egan said. "But there's another side to them. I don't know if that's bipolar or what, but there's two personalities."
James Gandolfini was set to portray Egan in a movie for HBO before the actor's death last month. A spokeswoman for HBO said the project would continue and the company maintains the option on a book Egan wrote with journalist Kurt Pitzer, called "Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ shack in Hackensack."
This 2002 photo provided by Cubby's BBQ owner Bobby Egan shows Egan, center, with a group of North Koreans displaying their catches during a fishing trip with off Long Island, N.Y Egan had a well-documented, decades-long friendship with North Korean diplomats posted to the United Nations in New York. His book about his experiences dealing with the North Koreans, called “Eating with the Enemy,” was optioned by HBO, and actor James Gandolfini was set to portray Egan in the film before his untimely death last month. (AP Photo/Courtesy Bobby Egan)
The gregarious 55-year-old, known as Bobby, freely admits to a past that included drug use and youthful petty crimes. Egan said he had always been open with both the North Koreans and his own government about his activities, and shared information with both.
A 2002 New York Times article about North Korea's newly discovered secret nuclear program said The Times had been contacted by the North Koreans through Egan, because they had wanted to get a message to the U.S. government about their willingness to negotiate with the Bush administration over the program.
Egan said his relations with the North Koreans have cooled since the 2010 publication of his book and because he feels North Korea's current leader, Kim Jong Un, is a more volatile, dangerous man than his predecessor and less open to backdoor communication between the two nations, which have no formal diplomatic relations.
During his active years with the North Koreans, Egan often fed visiting delegates at Cubby's, his modest barbecue restaurant located along a light industrial stretch of road in Hackensack, about eight miles outside of Manhattan. The exact mileage between Cubby's and the UN was itself a matter of diplomatic importance: The restaurant fell within the 25-mile radius that North Koreans are permitted to travel on their heavily restricted visas. His restaurant walls and several albums are full of photos of Egan escorting the North Korean diplomats on fishing and hunting trips, or to Giants games. They also include pictures of his trips to North Korea.