North Korean diplomacy, with a side of slaw

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!



  1. “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.”

    That’s not double talk, that’s more talk to the power of talk…

      1. Even if they had been beaten by half a day, does that really make that much difference?

        First, the timeliness of that news makes little difference to people in their daily life (no action/decision, unlike an environmental disaster).
        Second, who knows when he actually died and how long it took for the news to make it onto social media.
        Finally, is time-to-release the only feature that matters for news? How about trustworthiness and fact checking?

        1. Julien, 

          You’re getting really defensive here and I’m not sure that’s necessary. I don’t think social media is going to replace media-media, or that it should. I just, as a journalist who likes to get wonky about my own industry, enjoy seeing journalists use multiple means of communication to tell a story. 

          I think that a short announcement of something, followed by a more in-depth piece later, is a completely legitimate way to do journalism. In fact, I think that what social media allows you to do in that case is slow down the process of writing the longer piece a bit. So that it’s actually more likely to be accurate and well-written than if you’d been trying to slam it out so you could be the first person out the door. 

        2. Ironically I was on 4chan…

          -A whole lot of “not sure if trolling” going through that thought process.

          Needless to say I confirmed it with some slightly more credible sources.

      2. I was on HuffPo when I saw the news on the AP scroller at the top of the page. I hustled over to BoingBoing and that was quick enough to get me the first post on the thread announcing his death. Our lives are measured by such tiny triumphs.

  2. It says a lot about a stupid little country if they’d rather negotiate through a rib joint owner in Hackensack than through the diplomatic channels…

  3. I listened to the NPR report and can’t help but feel that a big piece of the story is missing.  To paraphrase: he had some buddies who were in the Vietnam war, he helped them out with some stuff, yadda yadda yadda… and then he was the unofficial ambassador between North Korea and the US.

    1. In a way, this sounds like a throwback to earlier periods – I’m sure not-quite-official solutions like this were historically responsible for a lot of inter-country contact.

      (Honorary) consulates are still fairly close to this, too.

  4.   Must be more interesting Facebook friends than mine, they just post zynga game requests. I heard about it on Yahoo news myself, then wondered about the possible consequences of a succession crisis over there. 

  5. He may be a friend to Korea but he’s no friend of mine, charging $15 for a cheesesteak. I go down the street to WHITE MANNA for their sliders,  a much better deal.

  6. A country going through a constant famine has an unofficial consulate in a … restaurant?

    The mind boggles.

  7. I learned about it from Wikipedia’s front page, where I had gone in order to learn why Detriot Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is nicknamed “Megatron”.*

    * I was hoping he could turn into a Walther P38, but it turns out it’s because of his large hands.**

    ** No, I don’t get it either.

  8. I remember reading a long article / interview with Mr. Egan two or three years back…it was in The New Yorker, iirc.  One of his most poignant memories?  The ambassador finally admits that he has a small toothache.   So Egan takes him to the dentist, only to discover that “Well, yeah, he’s got a toothache. All his teeth ache. We’re going to have to pull them all out and give him implants.”

    The Korean’s response?  ‘I’m North Korean, you understand that? You know how tough we are? So when I said I had a toothache, it means that all my teeth are rotten, I got gum disease, and I have to have them all pulled out. What did you think, that I would complain about one tooth, like you?’”

    After having all of his teeth pulled, they went back to the restaurant, same day.  Egan offered mashed potatoes, Han requested a rack of ribs.  Yeah, that’s tough alright.

    Here’s the full article.  It’s a great read.

  9. Someday, he’ll have to tell his story about how he came to this position. This whole thing sounds like it would make for a great movie.

  10. “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.”

    Exactly the way I learned about it also! I Googled it after FB and it wasn’t up yet!

  11. I keep passing by this restaurant and sticks out like a sore thumb. Makes me always wonder who the owner was. I ate there once, and the BBQ was pretty decent. It’s not the greatest that I have tasted, but not bad either.  It made me wonder how it keeps it’s business going in the middle of nowhere. It’s not even near a lot of major restaurants or a plaza. I don’t see it advertised in the local news. Maybe it’s some secret government facility underneath like that show “Chuck”. I don’t know, it just seems so out of place compared to the other fast food chains.

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