HACKENSACK, N.J. – The owner of a northern New Jersey barbecue restaurant has a lot to say about what's happening in North Korea. That's because he's hosted North Korean diplomats for years — and traveled several times to the restricted nation — to do his part for world peace.
Robert Egan has been conducting his own brand of restaurant booth diplomacy for more than a decade from his Hackensack barbecue joint, Cubby's, where the walls are decorated with a snapshot gallery of people the U.S. government considers enemies — and Egan calls friends.
"They're people, they're real people," Egan says of the North Korean diplomats he regularly hosts at the restaurant. "It's just ideologies, that's all — it's politics."
The unlikely alliance began when Egan, who is of Irish-Italian descent, met the North Koreans through contacts he'd developed with Vietnamese officials while working on an issue he is passionate about — the accounting of U.S. servicemen from Vietnam.
Although North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, the country maintains a mission to the United Nations in New York.
Egan reached out to the mission workers and invited them across the river for some American-style barbecue. The fishing trips and family outings that followed led to Egan becoming an unofficial — and unpaid — advocate for the North Koreans, as well as an interpreter of American culture for his foreign visitors.
"I was a sounding board (about) the American public, so when they didn't understand why our reactions were what they were, they wanted an interpretation of whether things were a political reaction from our policy makers or was this how the American people felt," Egan said.
A promise by the Bush administration this week to remove North Korea from its "Axis of Evil" list angers Egan, who says the label was unnecessary to begin with.
Egan says he loves America — especially New Jersey — and does not agree with North Korea's political philosophy. But people are the same all over the world, he likes to say; they want what's best for their families.
He is especially critical of the U.S. government's failure to negotiate with the North Koreans over their nuclear program years ago, and points with pride to a framed front page article in The New York Times that mentions how Egan brokered a 2002 meeting during which the North Koreans offered to do so.
"I know government works slow, but this administration works really slow, because this could have been done years ago," Egan said.
A man who answered the phone at the North Korean Mission to the United Nations declined to comment on whether they knew Egan or not. An article posted on Vanity Fair's Web site in September depicted Egan dining with North Korean U.N. delegates including then-deputy Ambassador Han Song Ryol and Minister Kim Myong Gil.
These days, the 50-year-old restaurateur can be found holding court in a chef's jacket at his River Street place, greeting each customer with the flair of a homegrown New Jersey politician.
Egan, who says he barely squeaked by with a high school diploma, says he learned all he needs to know about diplomacy talking his way out of run-ins with the "wise guys" he grew up with in north Jersey.
"I'm not a diplomat, but I'm a guy that I don't judge people," Egan said. "Most of the time I'm a little callous, I'm uneducated, and I never want to be a guy that is soft spoken and doesn't have a sense of humor or has to be guarded on everything he says — never accuse me of being a diplomat.
"I go to North Korea to work on nuclear issues," added Egan, who said he doesn't know much about nuclear technology. "I never took a science class in my whole life, but I know they got a bomb and it's a big bang. And how do we get it away from them? Let's see if they're interested in giving it to us, that's the easiest way."