As Dean told you this morning, Kim Jong-Il is dead. (Side note: This has been one of those great moments for me, where I learned about a news story from Facebook first, at least a good 10-15 minutes before stories started popping up on Google News last night. Shout-out for that goes to Kyle Whitmire, the new media editor and main political writer at WELD, a Birmingham, Alabama, based weekly.)
With that news in mind, I'd like to take a moment to remember one the weirder aspects of North Korean politics under Kim Jong-Il's reign. During the Clinton administration, and to a lesser extent, under Bush as well, one of the primary ways the United States conducted diplomacy with North Korea was through Bobby Egan, owner of a barbecue joint in Hackensack, New Jersey. No, really. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 NPR story on Bobby Egan:
... 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.
Thanks to the Slacktivist blog for reminding me of this story!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.