HACKENSACK, N.J. » 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 BBQ 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 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, adding they were also family-oriented and loyal. "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 untimely 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."
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 freely shared information with both camps.
A lengthy 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Egan said the author had been shown proof of Egan’s role as an on-again, off-again informant for the FBI, which had also kept tabs on Egan. The portion of Egan’s FBI file that related to North Korea — which the magazine obtained under a Freedom of Information request — was several hundred pages long and marked "classified."
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 BBQ 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 several trips to North Korea.
Egan, who is proud of his blue-collar Italian and Irish ancestry, said the North Koreans came to trust his straight-talking New Jersey ways.
"Certainly the roughness around me, the ‘street Bobby,’ is something they respond favorably to," he said. "Right up to the top, they got all Bobby Egans running their country. These guys are street thugs. These guys have made it the hard way."