Read Part II: Hamburger Diplomacy.
Author's Note: When I first met Bobby Egan at his restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey, he set a plate of barbecue in front of me, sat down, and launched into the most unbelievable story I'd ever heard. For 13 years, Egan claimed, he had inserted himself into a dangerous, high-stakes political game between Washington and Pyongyang. I shook my head when he told me—among other mind-boggling tales—about how he submitted to a truth-serum interrogation on his first trip to Pyongyang, collected North Korean hair samples for the FBI, and became fishing buddies with North Korea's head of American affairs, Han Song Ryol.
Turns out the stories were true. In the early 1990s, after the North Koreans' efforts to reach out to Washington were rebuffed, they turned to Egan, a high-school dropout from a mobbed-up Jersey town who had worked with Vietnamese officials as a POW activist. Egan's wild yarns are retold in our new book, Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack, out this week from St. Martin's Press. The following excerpt, told in Bobby's voice, picks up in 2002, shortly after President Bush declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil."
"INFECTED GUMS," HAN SAID. He winced as he pulled his lip up and his cheek out. His front teeth looked like an old graveyard. I looked deeper. The flesh around his molars was violet-colored and swollen. "Nothing they can do," he said. "Too much money."
It was bad for world peace to have North Korea's ambassador in terrible pain. And I couldn't stand to see my buddy suffer.
"We'll fix it," I said. "I've got just the guy."
John "The Greek" Kallis was the best oral surgeon in northern New Jersey. He once pulled a wisdom tooth for Tom Cruise, and the photos in his office showed the other famous mouths he'd worked on: Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lopez, Patrick Ewing of the Knicks, Doug Gilmore of the New Jersey Devils, ice skaters Silvia Fontana and John Zimmerman, and cast members from The Sopranos.
More importantly, The Greek was a friend of mine. He was a street guy like me—born to a couple of immigrants in Hell's Kitchen and raised in a tough neighborhood of Fort Lee, N.J., which was important because I needed somebody willing to take a few risks who wouldn't ask too many questions.
I told The Greek that the North Korean in charge of handling the nuclear crisis had a bad toothache, and that easing his pain was crucial to the stability of the world. He agreed right away to help. And he took it on faith when I said we'd try to get funds from a charity group to pay his bill.
I told him the FBI knew I was organizing dental work for Han, which was true, although my contact, Special Agent Tom Marakovits, had tried to chase me off the idea. "Dentistry can be dangerous," he'd said as we discussed the idea at Cubby's. "What if something bad happens, God forbid. Or what if he alleges malpractice? We're at war with these guys."
"What if his infection gets worse, and he dies, because we don't give him access to healthcare?"
"Don't say that!"
"You're right. God forbid."
Marakovits shifted in his seat. "I checked into it, anyway. We're not responsible for him."
"You mean legally," I said.
"If he is ill, he needs to return to his place of origin."
I gave Marakovits a look. "You've never seen a medical facility in North Korea. If you had, you wouldn't say that."
"I'm looking out for your best interests," he said. "You don't have to take unnecessary risks."
I took a long pull of my coffee. "Sure I do."
"What do you mean, you do?"
"If we only took necessary risks, we wouldn't get very far," I said.
"You realize that if you get in trouble, I get in trouble."
"Then I guess that makes us partners," I smiled.
"Think about your family." Marakovits glanced at the kitchen door. "If something happens to you, it will be bad for them, too."
"Now you sound like a North Korean."
He waggled his head back and forth. "If something goes haywire, bigger feet are going to step in from the Bureau," he said. "I won't be able to help you."
I liked Marakovits. I did. Deep inside, part of him probably wanted to be doing what I was doing, mixing it up with the enemy. But he was timid. He had a badge and a cheap suit and a pension to protect. "We're just going to knock him out, pull out a tooth or two." I said. "When you see somebody in pain, don't you want to help them?"
Marakovits sat upright. "Tell me you're not going put the ambassador from North Korea under general anesthesia." He clasped his hands on the table and fiddled with his thumb.
"Who's the dentist? Does he have a license?"
"It's better if you don't know," I said.
I walked Marakovits to his car and lied to him. I said I'd call before we did any dental work on Han.