Robert Egan runs a barbecue restaurant in New Jersey. He also has a rare, direct line of communication with government officials in North Korea. He speaks with Anchor Marco Werman.
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MARCO WERMAN: Few Americans enjoy open lines of communication with North Korea. But Robert Egan does. He’s no high falutin U.S. diplomat either. When he’s not trying to improve ties between Washington and Pyongyang, Egan runs a barbecue restaurant in New Jersey. His new book is called “Eating with the Enemy, How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My Barbecue Shack in Hackensack”. Mr. Egan is at his barbecue shack in Hackensack. Now we just heard in reporter Matthew Bell’s story that some analysts think there’s a real danger that things between North and South Korea could spin out of control. You spoke last night with agents of North Korea’s government. Are they saying that is a possibility?
ROBERT EGAN: I was in contact with a North Korean yesterday. And certainly cooler heads certainly will prevail. When the South Koreans have addressed this properly, it’s a grave consequence to have 47 souls lost from the South Korean military, but I think they’ve been very responsible and measured in their public responses to this. It’s not advantage for anybody now to up the rhetoric.
WERMAN: First thing, you said a measured response, but they have severed ties with the south. That doesn’t seem terribly measured.
EGAN: You know when I say measured; I’m just hoping that the south doesn’t take any pre-emptive military strike, even a small one against the North. That’s something that the world right now or forever doesn’t need.
WERMAN: And Mr. Egan, when you communicate with these North Korean agents in Pyongyang, who are they?
EGAN: Certainly before my book I was embedded with the North Koreans. Since by book has come out they’re somewhat cautious about what I wrote about because in Eating with the Enemy I tell the real story about the North Korean diplomats that were stationed in the United States. My book focuses on my relationship with their North American ambassador, Ambassador Hahn and the efforts that he and his government put in towards normalizing relations with the United States.
WERMAN: Briefly Mr. Egan can you tell us how you won the trust of the North Koreans and how you became essentially their representative here in the United States?
EGAN: What happened was I was investigating, when I was somewhat younger, POW/MIA cases in Vietnam. I befriended a Vietnamese, the U.N. is 15 miles from my restaurant so one day I knocked on the Vietnamese door and made a telephone call. Met them, and I had a long standing relationship with them. The North Koreans were curious. They asked the Vietnamese who helped them over the years walk through the normalized relationship process with the U.S., the roadmap to normalize ties with the west. And the Vietnamese recommended me to the North Koreans. The North Koreans and I got together and we decided that we would work together and I had a 15 year relationship with them.
WERMAN: Kim John Il has been described as a despot. Do you have a problem with that? Working essentially for a despot in the United States?
EGAN: Well you know something, look, part of me had a problem with, they are repressive. The human rights record is atrocious and I recognized that. So part of me said to myself, well how am I going to live with the fact that I know that I’m trying to bring peace and I know this is the way to go, but I do also know that they do have a past that’s pretty horrific. And so what I did is I got involved with the humanitarian relief aid in North Korea. I was one of the first people that brought in private aid to North Korea through Campus Crusades for Christ, America’s heart. We brought millions of dollars of aid into North Korea and the reason that they allowed Campus Crusades and America’s Heart sent that type of aid, was because they knew that I had to deal with the North Koreans, that I would do the verification process. That I would make sure it got to the hospitals and the orphanages. So I put a lot of my time and money and my resources into developing humanitarian relief aid for the common North Korean, the North Korean that’s been repressed over the years.
WERMAN: It must be kind of an odd moment for you because you’re book after all is subtitled “How I Waged Peace with North Korea” and here we’re seeing this battleship that’s been sunk by a torpedo and it doesn’t feel very peaceful right now.
EGAN: This has been like this ever since I’ve been involved with them. It’s very, very important for us to have mechanisms in place to prevent these things, the sinking of that ship. Come on, let’s face it, what are we going to send, another special envoy to North Korea? Somebody that has absolutely no relationship with any of their hierarchy in Pyongyang? And then he’s going to leave in three or four days and we expect this to resolve anything in the long term? Just ain’t going to happen.
WERMAN: Robert Egan is the author of “Eating with the Enemy, How I Waged Peace with North Korea from my Barbecue Shack in Hackensack”. He joined us from Hackensack, New Jersey at Cubbie’s, his barbecue shack. Quite a story you have there Robert. Thank you very much.
EGAN: Hey thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
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