By Edith Honan
HACKENSACK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Photographs of North Korean diplomats line the walls at Cubby's, a New Jersey barbecue restaurant whose owner says he bonded with officials from the secretive Communist state over baby back ribs.
Bobby Egan is one of few Americans who has traveled to North Korea. He claims friends among Pyongyang's former diplomats to the United Nations and said he used to go on occasional fishing and hunting trips with some of them in New Jersey.
But Egan said he had the same bewildered response as anybody else to Kim Jong-un, the 20-something son of Kim Jong-il who became North Korea's leader when his father died last weekend.
"He's got a pudgy face. You want to squeeze his cheeks and give him a kiss," said Egan, a charismatic, barrel-chested New Jersey native of Irish and Italian ancestry.
"Quite frankly, he doesn't look like he's been in a fist fight. How is he going to run the fifth-largest military in the world?" he said. "This is a rough and tumble world out there, especially for a dictator in 2011."
Egan's story goes back to the late 1970s, when he launched a personal crusade over U.S. prisoners of war unaccounted for in North Korea and Vietnam. He says he became friendly with several officials at the U.N. mission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is known.
Over the years, Egan held several unofficial roles, including head of the U.S.A.-D.P.R.K. Trade Council - a largely made-up group that made it possible for him to travel to North Korea.
The quirky relationship between Egan and several North Korean diplomats was the subject of a 2007 article in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/08/071008fa_fact_mead?currentPage=all).
Egan's memoir "Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack" was published last year by St Martin's Press and HBO has bought the film rights.
But North Korea experts cast doubt on the significance of any relationship between Egan and North Korean officials.
Charles Pritchard, the U.S. special envoy for talks with North Korea in 2001-2003 and now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said Egan has embellished his role and the North Koreans saw him as nothing more than a "free meal."
"There is so much that is not true and so much that is exaggerated. It is more entertainment and fantasy than reality," he said in an interview. "I certainly got nothing from him."
Egan, 53, says North Korean diplomats ate for free at Cubby's, a short drive from midtown Manhattan, and some became regulars.
"Baby back ribs - well done, light on the sauce" was their favorite dish, Egan said. He added, in a hushed voice, the North Koreans' teeth cannot handle too much sweet sauce.
Egan eventually made several trips to the secretive state, beginning in 1994. But he said he never saw Kim Jong-un and knows little about him.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE
For Egan, who did not graduate from high school and describes himself as a former drug addict, his connection to North Korea offered the chance for some excitement.
"I was for a while our only in-country guy who was feeding back intelligence. I was our guy inside there. And I was also Pyongyang's guy in New Jersey," he said, summing up his diplomatic philosophy as "keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
Any connection between Egan and U.S. intelligence could not be confirmed.
John McCreary, a retired analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and a North Korea expert, said in an interview when Egan's book was published that the restaurateur's role had been one of personal diplomacy.
"On a local, personal level there was a breakthrough. That's a good thing," McCreary said, describing Egan as a friend. He added it was not clear Egan had accomplished any more than that.
A representative at North Korea's U.N. mission told Reuters last year he understood Egan had ties with the mission but gave no further information.
Egan said he now has only infrequent contact with North Koreans. His last trip there was about five years ago but he hopes to return to open a branch of his restaurant in Pyongyang.
"My dream is that (President Barack) Obama appoints me ambassador and then I'll open my Cubby's right next to the embassy," he said.
(Editing by Michelle Nichols, Claudia Parsons and John O'Callaghan)