Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace With North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack, Reviewed by Kayla Ishkanian

Eating with the Enemy-cover

Academics often question the validity of popular histories since many of the author’s do not have PhD’s attached to their names or have an Ivy League alma mater. While those scholars who have dedicated their life’s work to their field have good reason to lift their noses to those comparatively unqualified authors who write inaccurate and highly successful novels, the field as a whole should not be discredited. Enter Robert Egan’s memoir “Eating with the Enemy,” a useful example of a popular history that depicts the history and politics of North Korea as told by a former cocaine addict and Vietnam War enthusiast aiming to shed some light on the Hermit Kingdom. Some scholars, such as Alessandro Portelli and Chris Smith all acknowledge the importance of popular histories and oral traditions, a method invoked by Egan as he takes the reader through the historiography of North Korea and its politics. This review ultimately argues that “Eating with the Enemy” adds to historians understanding of the history of North Korea and is a valuable primary source since it involves firsthand experience in the country and describes the narratives native North Koreans were taught about their country compared to what the rest of the world knows. After briefly summarizing the book this review analyzes Egan’s methodology in researching the book and gathering data, evaluates its merit as an effective oral history source and concludes with a positive recommendation for “Eating with the Enemy.”

“Eating with the Enemy”: An Overview

Robert Egan’s roots with international diplomacy do not start in a prestigious Ivy League school, but rather through his own personal curiosity spurred by the Vietnam War and the stories he heard about the working class men stuck “in bamboo cages.”[1] Years after the Vietnam War ended, Egan found himself pondering the fate of the POW’s all the while going through personal struggles and developing a cocaine addiction. During his moments of sobriety he attended meetings of interest groups that were still looking for missing soldiers in South-East Asia which lead Egan to visit Vietnamese diplomats from the United Nations in 1979. After working with a Vietnamese diplomat who later defected to the United States in 1992, Egan was contacted by the North Koreans who were interested as to why he was communicating with a fellow communist country. Around this time North Korean ambassador Han Song Ryol visited Egan in his native New Jersey to discuss the possibility of releasing American POW’s from the Korean War which stuck with Egan as the idea of “no man left behind”[2] weighed heavy on his mind. Unfortunately the FBI did not share his idealistic views.

After Kim Jong-Il became the leader of the DPRK in 1994 Egan made his first visit to North Korea, or as he calls it, his initiation to the Mafia. During the trip, Egan was continually tested and interrogated by his tour guides as they hoped to uncover why he was in their country and who he was working for[3]. They tested by taking him to important monuments[4] and interrogated him using a truth serum. Towards the end of the trip, Egan was officially accepted into the North Korean’s inner circle when he was presented with a Kim Il-Sung pin,[5] a sign he believed indicated that he had passed their tests. Unfortunately, the trip did not turn up any concrete evidence that any POW’s remained in North Korea.

Once Egan returned home, he began to put pressure on the FBI to take action and bring home the POWs in North Korea. The FBI was hesitant of this as there was no concrete evidence that there were any remaining POWs in the DPRK, only vague comments from Ryol and information that he gathered from reports[6]. The FBIs disinterest forced Egan to go to Pyongyang himself and find the men that Washington had forgotten about with no avail. For many years, POW talks began to wind down and Ryol was sent home for ‘re-education’ in 1998 since his tour in America was over. Egan and Ryol had no contact for four years and in 2002, Ryol returned to America. After the disappointments from the lack of information surrounding the POWs Egan’s “juice”[7] began to run out while Ryol prepared to go home. In 2006, after over ten years of working together, Ryol left America for good and he and Egan shared a touching goodbye which showed that two men from enemy nations can put their ideological differences aside and share a bond that is deeper than bureaucracy.

Egan’s Methodology: The Value of Personal Experience in History

Throughout his book, Egan describes the history of North Korea in detail and does not rely on footnotes from other academic scholars to aid him in telling his story. One of the high points for “Eating with the Enemy” is its use of combining both traditional historiographies and the North Korean’s understanding of their history. For example, while it is generally accepted in western academia that North Korea invaded the South, the DPRK preaches to its people that it was instead the victim of imperialist aggression and fought in an imperial war against the United States.[8] This is an effective method of historical research as it safeguards against the author’s bias by having the locals share the histories that they have been fed by their governments. While the North Korean people often have a skewed perception of events like the Korean War and the sinking of the USS Pueblo,[9] their accounts are still valid as they highlight how history can be manipulated by governments in foreign countries, especially those with dictators.

Furthermore, because Egan does not have an official ties to the U.S government or FBI, his descriptions of life in North Korea and his personal opinions on politics add validity to his memoir as he is not being backed by a large institution and forced to regurgitate FBI rhetoric. Compared to other memoirs written by government officials[10] Egan’s is filled with candor and unfiltered opinions about the situations and people he dealt with. This makes for a more enjoyable read compared to a stuffy, pretentious academic novel with a PhD attached to it. While critics may question the validity of a high school graduate with a former drug problem as an academic historian, Egan’s personal encounters and experiences in North Korea add to his credibility as he is able to evaluate the information he acquired abroad and compare it to the information he has been told as an American citizen.

“Eating with the Enemy” and the Importance of Oral Traditions

With the memoir primarily centered on Egan’s relationship with Han, “Eating with the Enemy” is able to tell the history of 20th century North Korea through Han’s anecdotes in addition to Egan’s personal experiences in the Hermit Kingdom. This speaks to the importance of oral traditions and histories when analyzing the usefulness of historical sources as they can tell historians “what [people] wanted to do [and] what they believed they were doing.”[11] As John Portelli argues part of the value in oral histories is that they allow us to gather information about people or groups that are illiterate and have holes in the written aspect of their histories[12] which applies to the North Korean case as little information about life and society about the country is heavily censored by the government. This adds to the value of accounts such as Egan’s memoir since he has interacted with North Korean diplomats as well as military personal, giving him a rare inside look at what is true and what is a constructed false reality. Furthermore, Chris Smith puts forth the idea that “if knowledge of the past is important for everyone, then all kinds of interpretations… will help a people know themselves”[13] which again can be applied to North Korea as the people are fed heavily fabricated information about their government and much of what the western world hears about the country is intensely negative. “Eating with the Enemy” picks up on the importance of the oral traditions associated with history as Egan’s narrative explains the history of 20th century North Korea from both the perspective of the North Koreans and the western world.

Concluding Thoughts

“Eating with the Enemy” deserves high praise for weaving a narrative about a blue collar American attempting to forge ties with an enemy nation while telling a relatively unbiased account of that country’s history. Egan effectively uses his personal experiences in the country as a way to describe the political and historical context of North Korea as his memoir embodies elements of oral traditions commonly employed in historical sources. Though Egan is no academic, his work should not be overlooked or snubbed due to his lack of academic clout.

 

Bibliography

Egan, Robert, and Kurt Pitzer. Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010.

Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop 12 (1981): 96 – 107.

Smith, Chris. “A Plea for a New Appreciation of Popular History: John Clark Ridpath, a Case Study.” Indiana Magazine of


[1] Egan, Robert, and Kurt Pitzer. Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010.  Pg. 11

[2] Ibid Pg.167.

[3] Ibid Pg.98-99.

[4]Ibid Pg.79.

[5] Ibid Pg.92.

[6] In 1996, I.O Lee publishes a report saying that seventeen years earlier, there were sightings of American POW’s in North Korea. Ibid Pg.148.

[7] Juice refers to the amount of knowledge or credibility one has within a powerful group. It is commonly used in the Mafia. Ibid Pg. 40.

[8] This rhetoric is common throughout the book and is used by multiple DPRK representatives that Egan associates with.

[9] The sinking becomes another subject of Egan’s duty in North Korea as he tries to extend his political weight to bring the American ship back to the U.S.

[10] One of the main criticisms of Robert McNamara’s memoir “In Retrospect” was that the information was too dense and dry and lacked the full political insight that McNamara had during the Vietnam War.

[11] Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop 12 (1981). Pg 100.

[12] Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History.” Pg. 97.

[13] Smith, Chris. “A Plea for a New Appreciation of Popular History: John Clark Ridpath, a Case Study.” Indiana Magazine of History 77, no. 3 (1981). Pg. 207.

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