Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: "Eating With the Enemy" by Robert Egan and Kurt Pitzer

I've been on a bit of a North Korea themed reading kick for some time now, especially since I have been getting more involved with volunteering for Justice for North Korea. I recently finished reading Eating With the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from my Barbecue Shack in Hackensack by Robert Egan and journalist Kurt Pitzer. I found it to be really interesting, not because it was particularly well written, just because it was unlike any other perspective I'd ever read on North Korea before.

The books' author, Robert Egan, is a self-proclaimed blue collar restaurant owner from Hackensack, New Jersey. He befriends Han Song Ryol, a representative from the North Korean mission in the United States, and becomes something of a self-appointed diplomat to North Korea. Over a thirteen year period, Han and Bobby become unlikely friends--constantly eating at Egan's restaurant, going to basketball and football games, and going with the entire North Korean mission on fishing and hunting trips in New Jersey. Egan travels to Pyongyang, where he is injected with truth serum and is given a special, honorary medallion with Kim Il Sung's face on it. He makes all of the arrangements for the North Korean Olympic team during the Olympics in Atlanta, and is at one point nearly able to negotiate the release of rumored live, American POWs living in North Korea.

Though the book is footnoteless--most of the story seems extremely improbable--I was pretty fascinated/excited/inspired by the idea that this guy--a high school dropout--could influence foreign policy in the same way a rich Senator with a PhD in law from Harvard could. It was interesting to see how Egan's relationship with Han soured after the Clinton administration was replaced by the Bush administration, and the White House completely lost interest in engaging diplomatically with a country Bush lumped into his infamous "Axis of Evil".

Up to this point, everything that I've read about North Korea has focused on the human rights atrocities committed there. Egan acknowledges that terrible things are happening in North Korea--most vividly, when he takes a second class train ride across North Korea to visit the KEDO site. However, he seems to think that it is best for the U.S. and the world to turn a blind eye all of the horror if the U.S. intends to negotiate successfully with North Korea. He even goes so far as to dedicate his book to Kim Jong Ill, supposedly in the name of the diplomacy.

Though it was slightly self-indulgent and sometimes extremely dubious, I enjoyed reading this book, and found it interesting to think about North Korea from a diplomatic perspective.

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