Kitchen Diplomacy
Hot Sauce to Nuclear Talks: A Restaurateur's Odd Career As Envoy to the Axis of Evil

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Waiting for the North Korean ambassador to show up for dinner, Bobby Egan, who is the world's only barbecue chef/self-appointed unofficial American ambassador to rogue nations, launches into an impassioned monologue on why he, Bobby Egan, is a better diplomat than America's real diplomats.

"You couldn't put Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright on a level with me in dealing with the Koreans," he says. "They've never even been in a fistfight. I've been in fistfights -- including with the Koreans. These are tough guys. Condoleezza Rice is a piano p layer. She's not a rugged, all-American boy."

Egan keeps peeking out the window of Cubby's, his barbecue joint, looking for North Korea's ambassador, Pak Gil Yon. Pak isn't here yet so Egan hops up on a chair to point out some souvenirs of his bizarre career as a diplomat without portfolio.

He points out a photo of himself sitting in a limo with Nizar Hamdoun, who was Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the United Nations. They were on their way to a Giants game.

"Hamdoun was a great, great guy," Egan says. "His daughter took karate lessons with my daughter."

He points to a picture of himself on a boat with a group of Korean men holding big, dead fish. "This is the first time I took the North Koreans fishing," Egan says. "The FBI didn't want me to take them. I said, 'This is the United States of America -- I need your permission to go fishing ?' We caught a ton of fish, and when we came back to the dock, the FBI was taking pictures so I said, 'Let's show 'em what we caught!' "

What do Egan's customers make of these pictures of the owner entertaining diplomats from two-thirds of the "axis of evil"?

"They don't care," he says. "Most Americans understand that as much as the Koreans are full of [bleep], so is our own government."

Intense, garrulous and profane, Egan, 50, looks and sounds like an extra in "The Sopranos." Now, he steps off the chair and bounds into the kitchen. Cubby's is closed today, but a few cooks are whipping up a private barbecue banquet for Pak and his entourage. Egan issues a few orders to his crew, then glances out a window and spots the Koreans in the parking lot.

"They're here," he says. "Get in the back!"

North Koreans don't like reporters, Egan explains, as he hustles his interviewer into a tiny office behind the kitchen. He fiddles with a TV that sits on the desk, behind a crucifix. A picture appears -- a silent, closed-circuit TV image of the Koreans entering Cubby's dining room. Egan leaves the office, closing the door.

"If anybody knocks," he says, "don't open it."

A moment later, Egan appears on the TV screen, greeting the Koreans. There are a dozen of them, including two women and several kids. Egan escorts them to tables and delivers mugs of beer. Soon, workers appear bearing trays of salad. Egan sits down and starts talking, his mouth moving silently on the screen as his hands gesticulate grandly.

After a while, he stands up, walks off-screen, then returns holding a fishing rod, which he presents to Pak. The Koreans stand and applaud.

A few minutes later, Egan walks off-screen and pops into the tiny office, bearing a tray of sizzling barbecued ribs. "Eat these [bleeping] ribs," he says, "then tell me about [bleeping] Texas!"

He hustles off, and reappears on the TV screen, carrying ribs out to the Koreans, accompanied by his wife, Lilia, and their two daughters, who are also serving food. He sits down to eat and chat, then he stands up, walks off the screen then returns holding a fancy bow and arrow, the bow equipped with high-tech pulleys, the arrow bearing a razor-tipped point.

Several Koreans wipe the barbecue sauce off their hands and examine the bow and arrow, looking suitably impressed.

"They like weapons," Egan says later.

'I'm From Jersey'

It all began with Vietnam.

In the early '70s, when Bobby Egan was growing up in the tough Jersey town of Fairfield, son of a roofing contractor, he figured he'd finish high school, then go fight in Vietnam, like so many other Fairfield kids. To prepare, he took up shooting and hunting. But by the time he graduated the war was over, so Bobby worked as a roofer for his father, and in 1982, started his barbecue business.

But he remained obsessed with Vietnam and with reports that the Vietnamese were holding American prisoners of war in secret prison camps. He decided to investigate by befriending the diplomats at the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations, inviting them to Cubby's and taking them fishing.

When his father saw him hanging around with communist diplomats, he was shocked. "Jesus, what's going on here?" Walter Egan recalls thinking. " Do they have him brainwashed?" He reported his son to the FBI -- "I'm a flag-waver," he explains -- and he was relieved to learn that Bobby was informing the bureau about his activities. "They said, 'We know everything he's doing.' "

The FBI declines to confirm or deny any relationship with Egan, says Bureau spokesman Stephen Kodak. But the FBI certainly kept voluminous files on Egan, which he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Most of the words on most of the pages are blacked out, but the censor let stand an anonymous observation that Egan was "obnoxious and pushy."

In 1990, Egan traveled to Vietnam, but he failed to bring back any POWs. In 1992, a Vietnamese diplomat defected to the United States and wound up living in Egan's apartment. Egan and the defector were interviewed by John McCreary, an investigator for the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.

Now retired, McCreary remains amazed at Egan's ability to befriend America's enemies. "He's friendly, he's generous and he doesn't judge them," McCreary says. "He just makes friends easily."

About 15 years ago, Egan decided to make friends with the North Koreans. He'd read reports of American POWs held in North Korea, and he decided to investigate. He courted the Koreans the same way he'd wooed the Vietnamese -- by feeding them barbecued ribs and taking them on hunting and fishing trips and to Giants football games. He also cooked for the North Korean team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Egan's hospitality was reciprocated. In 1994, he was granted permission to travel to North Korea, an isolated Stalinist dictatorship that rarely welcomes foreign visitors, particularly Americans. When Egan arrived, he says, he was given what his translator called a "chemical interrogation" -- an injection of a drug that made him woozy and talkative and caused his nose to bleed, followed by a lengthy interview that he barely remembers.

"The act of trusting them is important to them," he says. "Being willing to get sedated said more than anything I might have said when they did it."

Egan claims that a North Korean official told him that all their diplomats are required to undergo a "chemical interrogation" when they return home. Alas, that's impossible to confirm: The North Korean mission to the United Nations declined to return repeated calls requesting an interview about Egan.

Two years later, in December 1996, Egan returned to North Korea, this time accompanied by several Americans -- Mark Sauter, author of a book on American POWs; Eugene "Red" McDaniel, a former Navy pilot who had been a POW in North Vietnam for six years; and Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who took a container of medical supplies for victims of a flood in North Korea.

The travelers changed planes in Beijing, where North Korean customs officials tried to charge Greenleaf duty on the medical supplies he was donating to their country. Irate, Egan launched into an expletive-studded tirade.

"He was very animated," Greenleaf recalls, dryly.

As Egan argued, Greenleaf recalls, the duty dropped from $1,000 to $500 to nothing.

"Sometimes you have to raise your voice," Egan explains. "What are you gonna do? I'm from Jersey, you know?"

When they arrived in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Egan, Sauter and McDaniel met with a North Korean official to discuss the issue of American POWs. The official was maddeningly evasive, Sauter recalls. When Egan asked to meet with an American defector known to be living in Pyongyang, the official refused and Egan exploded.

"Bobby lit into him with a level of invective that would bring admiration in the toughest bar in Hoboken," Sauter recalls. "It was invective that would have made the Sopranos blush. Bobby was a foreigner in the most frightening place on Earth, and he was browbeating this government official."

This time, Egan's tirade didn't work: He was not permitted to meet the defector. Still, Egan's traveling companions were impressed by his guts.

"I marveled at his ability to dress down the Korean leadership -- that he could use that language and still be accepted by them," McDaniel says.

"Bobby has world-class street smarts that he has raised to a geopolitical level," says Sauter. "Some people who have these street smarts do well in business, some do well in crime. Bobby has used them to inject himself into the most isolated place in the world."

Don't (Bleep) With Us!

"I said, 'Are you willing to give up your nuclear weapons?' and he said yes," Egan says, "so I said, 'We're going right to the New York Times.' "

Egan is telling this story in order to explain a newspaper clipping mounted on the wall at Cubby's. Unlike most clippings displayed in eateries, it's not a restaurant review. It's a story that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on Nov. 3, 2002.The headline reads: "North Korea Says Nuclear Program Can Be Negotiated."

The article, by Times reporter Philip Shenon, recounted Shenon's exclusive interview with Han Song Ryol, who was then North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations. Han told Shenon that his government had changed its policy and was now willing to negotiate with the United States over its nuclear weapons program. Deep in the story was the revelation that earned the article a place of honor on the wall at Cubby's: "The North Korean Mission contacted The Times through a New Jersey restaurateur, Robert Egan."

It happened like this, Egan says: His friend, Ambassador Han, was worried that President Bush, who had dubbed North Korea a part of the "axis of evil," was planning to invade his country. Egan suggested that Han announce, through the Times, his willingness to negotiate. When Han and his bosses in Pyongyang agreed, Egan recalls, "I called Phil Shenon."

"He said he had a connection to the North Koreans -- and he did," Shenon remembers. "He sort of inserted himself into the situation. He has lines of communication with the North Koreans and he has a line to the State Department and he was keeping them informed on what he was doing. He's smart enough to know that this is a tricky game and he'd better let people know what he's doing."

Egan claims that his diplomacy saved North Korea from an American invasion and maybe saved the world from a nuclear war -- not bad for a guy whose day job involves slathering pork ribs with hot sauce. He knows that North Korea is a brutal dictatorship, but he believes the United States can get along with the regime. Of course, he conveys his plea for peace and friendship in his own inimitable style.

"They are the toughest [bleeping] guys in the world!" he says. "We don't want to [bleep] with them! And they don't want to [bleep] with us! So what the [bleep] is the problem? We got a few political differences, that's all."

The Toothache Crisis

A few years ago, Egan's friend, Ambassador Han, got a toothache -- a toothache so agonizing that even a tough [bleeping] North Korean couldn't ignore it. Naturally, Han asked his favorite American barbecue chef for assistance.

Egan arranged for his friend John Kallis, an oral surgeon, to examine Han. Kallis concluded that he needed to yank out many of Han's teeth, which would require him to sedate the ambassador, which made the operation a serious geopolitical affair.

"Listen, you gotta close your office down," Kallis recalls Egan instructing him. "He'll be your only patient that day. I'll be there, and he'll come with a couple guys."

On the day of the operation, Egan arrived with Han and two North Korean bodyguards, Kallis recalls. One bodyguard stood outside the operating room door, the other came inside. So did Egan, who uttered a cheery warning to Kallis: "God forbid something happens to this guy -- nobody will get out of this room alive."

That made Kallis "a little nervous," he says, but somehow he managed to do his job.

"We sedated him and took out 12 teeth and put in, like, 13 implants," he recalls. "And believe it or not, the guy didn't even take an aspirin afterward."

After the operation, Egan took Han to Cubby's for lunch. Egan expected the ambassador to order something soft, like mashed potatoes. He was wrong. Han devoured a rack of ribs.

"He's a tough guy," says Kallis. "I became friendly with Ambassador Han and invited him to my daughter's Sweet 16 party. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to come, but he sent a gift."

Diplomacy and Ribs

Egan opens the door of his black Humvee, lifts a big cardboard box, lugs it into Cubby's and plops it on a table. The box is stuffed with documents -- his FBI file, newspaper clippings, letters from the North Koreans. He fishes out a tape recorder and a cassette tape.

It's a recording of phone calls Egan made in December 1996, when the United States and North Korea were engaged in sensitive negotiations in New York. A few months earlier, a North Korean submarine had run aground in South Korean waters, and commandos from the sub fought South Korean soldiers. In the New York negotiations, the Americans demanded that North Korea officially apologize for the incident, but the North Koreans balked. At that point, Egan says, he tried to broker a deal in which the North Koreans would agree to release American POWs instead of apologizing.

"Isn't getting our men back more important than an apology?" Egan asks.

He presses a button and the tape starts rolling. He recorded it on the phone here at Cubby's, where he tried to arrange his diplomatic deal while running his restaurant and selling Christmas trees in the parking lot. On the tape, Egan talks to his North Korean friend Han, and to a South Korean official, and to an FBI agent, and to Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who was active in POW issues. He also talked to Charles "Jack" Pritchard, a special assistant to President Clinton for National Security Affairs, who was then negotiating with the North Koreans.

On the tape, Egan thanks Pritchard for coming to Cubby's a few nights earlier and Pritchard thanks Egan for his efforts in the negotiations. But then the two men quarrel over Egan's proposal, which Pritchard describes as blackmail.

At one point in the conversation, Egan sneezes, then apologizes: "I'm getting a cold from selling these Christmas trees."

Ultimately, Egan failed to broker his deal. He blames Pritchard. "Jack Pritchard didn't want to take me seriously," he says. "He's a typical pompous diplomat."

Pritchard, now president of a Washington-based research group called the Korea Economic Institute, declined requests for an interview about Egan. But last year, he discussed Egan with Mark Bronner, who was writing an article for Vanity Fair: "He was inserting himself into affairs of state -- in the diplomacy and negotiations," Pritchard said. "He had no business being involved in something like that."

"What's wrong with trying to get our POWs back?" Egan says, quite loudly, as he sits in Cubby's. A couple of customers glance up from their ribs. Others ignore the outburst, perhaps because the sound of the owner loudly airing his geopolitical views is not unusual at Cubby's.

For 15 years, Egan has courted the North Koreans, feeding them, fishing with them, traveling to their country four times. Thus far, he has failed to win the release of a single American POW. He's also failed to obtain any hard information from his Korean friends about Americans who may or may not be imprisoned in their country.

Still, he keeps trying. Why? What makes the owner of a Jersey barbecue joint persist in this crusade of bizarre personal diplomacy?

"He believes in what he's doing," says his father.

"He wants to help," says Greenleaf. "He's rough around the edges, but his motives are good."

"Bobby is motivated by interest in the issue of missing Americans," says Sauter. "And it doesn't hurt that he gets some publicity out of it."

"Why?" asks Egan. The expression on his face indicates that he finds the question ridiculous. "Why did Mozart compose music? It's what he did good."

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