Pyongyang Bobby: Is this Kim Jong-Il's man in New Jersey?

To his customers, he is just a restaurateur. But is he also a pivotal figure in US relations with a pariah regime? David Usborne meets the mysterious Bobby Egan

Sunday 18 September 2011 20:08

Bobby Egan ushers me out into the lobby of his brightly lit BBQ restaurant, Cubby's, in Hackensack, an unprepossessing New Jersey town 10 minutes from Manhattan's George Washington Bridge, to listen to some voices on a cassette tape. "You are the first person who has ever heard this," he says.

I am not sure how seriously to take him. Back inside, a brightly coloured menu board above the counter features a cartoonish face of a happy pig and garishly drawn slogans to tempt the taste buds of his patrons that read, "Where's the Beef?" and "Here's the Pork". They are apt, because with him, frankly, it is hard not to ask how much of the astonishing story he has to tell is real meat and how much is porky pies.

That Egan, a 49-year-old Irish-Italian American, is more than a cheerful purveyor of baby back ribs and chilli dogs is not in dispute. There has been a parallel career of crisis diplomacy and espionage in the shadows that is as extraordinary as it is mysterious. For the past 15-odd years, he will gladly tell you, he has been the point man in the United States for one of its greatest foes anywhere on the globe, North Korea, regularly receiving its diplomats in the restaurant and travelling there himself about half a dozen times.

A discreet, suave, Le Carré kind of character Egan is not. The son of a roofing contractor, he has Soprano-cast looks and a not-so-short history of run-ins with the law. He says he travels armed to Pyongyang, but how he gets through security with guns he won't say. "I am a weapons expert and there are certain people in North Korea who appreciate that." Meanwhile souvenirs of his years advising and acting as advocate for the enemy are attached to nearly every wall of Cubby's for everyone to see.

"Wanna eat something? Maybe later, let's talk," Egan says on shaking my hand and, wasting no time, begins pointing the scores of photographs hung above the wide picture windows. "That's Han," he says, pointing at a snap of himself standing inside Cubby's with a group of Asian gentlemen in suits. "He's the only diplomat they sent to New York twice." Why was that? "Because of me, because I was here."

Next he points to a framed New York Times clipping dated November 2003. "NORTH KOREA SAYS NUCLEAR PROGRAM CAN BE NEGOTIATED", reads the headline, a vital message delivered by Pyongyang not long after President Bush attached his "Axis of Evil" moniker to the country. A message, as it happens, that got delivered thanks to Egan. (Indeed the article says as much a few paragraphs down.)

"I said to them [North Korea], counter what Bush is saying about you. They took my advice and invited the reporter to their mission. It was the first time it had happened, one on one. We couldn't do any better than the front page. I negotiated for the Sunday edition, front page and above the crease." North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK, had got its message out. Bobby's freelancing on the global stage is best traced back to the Vietnam War. He was too young to serve, but after it ended, he became fixated about the fate of soldiers who may have been left behind. Rather than just ruminating with friends, however, he apparently decided on a whim to approach the Vietnam mission to the UN himself and offered his services to help them improve relations with Washington by, specifically, coming clean about missing POWs.

Anxious to end their isolation, the Vietnamese took him up on it. The relationship resulted in his making trips to Hanoi when almost no Americans could and delivering to the US Congress a former official of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry named Le Quang Khai who had decided to seek asylum in the US and claimed to have knowledge of imprisoned Americans in his country. Le testified before lengthy hearings on Capitol Hill on the issue in 1992 as did Egan himself. The hearings concluded that there was no irrefutable evidence that American soldiers remained in Vietnam, but Egan had made his mark.

It was soon after that the North Koreans, even more deprived of American contacts than Vietnam, got wind of Egan and sought him out. Egan begun simply by urging diplomats in the North Koreans to step out of their mission, almost as hermetically sealed as the country itself. He lured them out to Cubby's, just within the 25-mile zone in which the state department allowed them to roam from Manhattan, with the promise of an encounter with members of the New York Giants American Football team who were friends. They duly turned up. "That was my technique often," Egan explains. "Get tickets for the Giants and then pick them up and bring them here to eat."

A new arrival at the North Korean mission in the mid-Nineties as deputy consul was the man Egan identified in the picture as Han, full name Han Song Ryol, a rising star in Pyongyang's eyes, who, on his second tour in New York, was a full ambassador. Egan established what seems to have been a genuine friendship with Han, including arranging for intensive dentistry to replace most of his rotten teeth. Out of it was born Egan's mysterious role as general fixer for North Korea. His work ranged from chauffeur and doorman, to securing much-needed humanitarian aid and oiling diplomatic impasses with Washington.

His work for North Korea has not gone unrecognised, at least by Pyongyang. In time, they decided to formalise his position by naming him president of something called the USA-DPRK Trade Council. During our conversation, meanwhile, Egan steps away for a second to his office and returns with a little clear plastic box. Inside sits a lapel pin bearing the image of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state and father of its current leader, Kim Jong Il. He was given it during one of his first visits to the country. "I am only one of two Westerners ever to get this," he says. "Me and some guy from Romania, I was told."

His relationship with his own countrymen has been far more complicated. Almost from the start, he was recruited by the FBI to feed back information he gleaned first from the Vietnamese and then the North Koreans. One of the photographs in his restaurant gallery shows him standing behind a North Korean official and picking something off his shoulder. A hair, Egan claims, for delivery to the FBI who wanted to DNA test it and discover what medicines, if any, the man was taking. To protect himself, he says, he never hid from his communist contacts that he was passing details back to his own people.

The tapes he plays me in the foyer date from a 1996 crisis when a North Korean submarine strayed into South Korea's waters. While the crew was later found executed and left in a ditch, a dozen or so North Korean commandos had escaped. Seoul, with Washington, demanded an apology from Pyongyang, which refused. Egan became involved by suggesting a distraction. He wanted the North to release the five or so American PoWs from the Korean War rumoured still to be in captivity and he wanted the US to accept the release in lieu of any apology. Some of the passages on the recordings are of a frustrated Egan trying to persuade an official in what was then President Bill Clinton's National Security Council to embrace the idea. Soon after Mr Clinton's top adviser on Asian affairs, Col Jack Pritchard, travelled to Cubby's to hear him out. In the end, however, Egan was bluntly told to get lost.

"He was inserting himself in affairs of state – in the diplomacy and negotiations," Pritchard recently told Vanity Fair magazine. "He had no business being involved in something like that".

The FBI cut Egan loose some time ago also, but he remains confident that over the years he was doing a far better job than any of America's highly trained diplomats in keeping North Korea at the table. Certainly, he never listened when he was told to back off from what he was doing. (He made the tapes of phone calls, including with Pritchard, to protect himself in the event the US decided to go after him for consorting with the enemy. "I wasn't about to pound rocks for 25 years somewhere.")

"North Korea was the only black hole in US intelligence until I got involved," he asserts boldly. "Nobody penetrated North Korea as deeply as I did." So he never took kindly to words of admonishment from the US side. "I tell them to kiss my ass. You had 50 fucking years to get this right before I came along. So don't tell me how to do my job, just tell me what you need."

Suggest to Egan nonetheless that there is something preposterous about his involvement – that Pritchard's assessment is right – he almost agrees. The fact that he was there, however, he sees as a reflection of America's diplomatic shortcomings. "When a guy from Hackensack who flips burgers is an adviser to those guys, you have got a problem and that's because... these jerk-offs have not slept a night in North Korea. They are talking theory. I was living the reality."

The reality after the appearance of that overture from Pyongyang in the Times at the end of 2003, of course, is that six-party talks that were set up to bring it back from the nuclear edge were start-stop at best. Then one year ago, catastrophe. North Korea tested a nuclear device – and the let world know.

It may not come as a surprise, however, that Egan thinks that that was a smart move. In fact, he admits that several months before, he had actually urged it upon his handlers in New York. "I said to them to get Bush off his chair, you might want to test one of those weapons. It was the best thing that ever happened to them of course, because our government was refusing to negotiate in full faith."

Whether or not Egan had any influence on Pyongyang's decision to go ahead with the test no one can know. But the analysis of this burger-flipper might not be far off the mark. Soon after the bang that was heard around the world, a deal was struck with Pyongyang to begin dismantling its facility in return for aid and, eventually, full relations with the US.

The thaw has left Egan with little more to do. He says he was approached two weeks ago by the South Koreans to work for them. But he has another priority anyway, he says. In the past year, he has lost a wife and a girlfriend. (He dumped the wife. The girlfriend subsequently dumped him.) "It's time to get my life in order," he says. Which means staying close to home and no more trips to Pyongyang.

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