“Eating with the Enemy” by Robert Egan

I first encountered this book on the shelf in my colleague’s office. I was immediately drawn to the cover. It is a strange cover – a giant burger with the flags of the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) sticking out of the top. I mean, what do burgers and the North Korean flag have to do with each other?

Eating with the Enemy ‘s full title is Eating with the Enemy: how I waged peace with North Korea from my BBQ shack in Hackensack. This only made me more curious about the strange combination of imagery on the cover. I read the front and back flaps and decided it was worth the read – even if it just wound up being some odd, bizarre experience.

Eating with the Enemy is essentially the story of a man named Robert Egan, a working-class New Jerseyite, who, through his history of advocating for the right of POWs, becomes (voluntarily) lodged in the middle of “back-door” DPRK-U.S. communications. He becomes the grease for what some people call the “New York connection”. The DPRK Mission to the United Nations seeks him out, having heard of him through Vietnamese connections. They convince him to convey messages back and forth between themselves and the FBI and (through the chain of command) eventually to federal agencies Washington.

Egan also becomes and advocate for improving U.S.-DPRK relations (despite what many policy wonks consider to be non-negotiable obstacles) by innovating unconventional solutions and manipulating informal relationships. The proximity to the North Koreans that he describes and his apparent influence on their interpretation of U.S. signaling is shocking and, frankly, begets suspicion of some sort of fabrication (the New York Times has called the book’s contents “improbable“).

While I don’t necessarily agree with Egan’s view that official diplomatic channels tend to be irredeemably inefficient, I do agree that diplomacy can be slow and require the sacrifice of certain gains in favor of others. Egan’s opinion, however, does make you question the idealistic view that diplomacy could be a panacea for international conflict on its own – imagine if the only means of communication between nations were those official channels managed by their respective governments? I think that we have NGOs and businesses to thank for their ability to “check” (as in “checks and balances”) the official relationship by pursuing their own sets of interests. They, in this way, also ensure that new resources (capital, etc.) and innovative solutions to diplomatic crises do become available. I think the opportunities for these types of solutions will abound more in the future with the spread of technology and economic inter-dependence. Perhaps Egan’s pessimism and dislike of government-led diplomatic efforts is so pointed because he fails to acknowledge this diversity of international actors in multilateral communications.

Interesting read, though. It has left many questions in my head about how to be an effective individual and whether or not my hypothetical role within a large corporate/bureaucratic system would be effective or not.

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