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Bobby Egan, North Korea, Bill Clinton, and the NY Times's mystifying "New York Connection" reference


Did this man help free Laura Ling and Euna Lee?

Question: Is the New York Times inadvertently (or maybe even purposefully) hinting at a juicy detail in one of the weirdest diplomatic exchanges in recent American history? More to the point, what role, if any, did Bobby Egan -- former FBI informant, freelance unofficial backdoor diplomat, New Jersey BBQ restauranteur -- play in convincing North Korea to release journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee?

The answer is: It sure looks like it, and, we don't know yet . . . but stay tuned.

Background: The Times is notoriously thorough. So when the Times writes a front-page story on a huge international issue (the superhero-like return of Bill Clinton to international diplomacy, floating off to North Korea in his millionaire-playboy-buddy's jet and returning with Al Gore's bound-for-forced-labor journalists, singlehandedly doing what neither his wife nor the current President could do) and buries an odd reference that it doesn't explain . . . well, people notice.

Here's the buried detail that's had us googling "North Korea New York Connection" today:

Among those accompanying Mr. Clinton [on the tarmac returning from North Korea] was David Straub, a former director of the Korea desk at the State Department, who had held talks with the North Koreans through what is known as the “New York connection.”

No explanation given for what the hell the "New York Connection" is -- but for anyone who's read a profile of Bobby Egan, the first thought was that the New York connection they're talking about had to be Egan. The leaflet/blog GOOD certainly caught the same vibe, linking off to the lengthy profiles of Bobby Egan that have run in the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and most recently in the New Yorker. The basic outline of Egan's story is strange enough that you'll likely be compelled to read all three of them, and it goes something like this: New Jersey guy -- with all the winking that suggests -- who has a long and varied but mostly low-key criminal record, and who was at one time an FBI informant, somehow ends up touring the very, very difficult-to-get-into country of North Korea, and then carries on a long-running unofficial/backdoor channel to North Korea's United Nations delegation, who come to visit him in the back room at his Bayonne BBQ joint, Cubby's. The story gets murkier and stranger from there.Go read one of those profiles, then come back . . . good? Let's continue.

The Times itself has a history with Egan, which was recounted in the Post's profile of Egan. Here's the relevant excerpt from the Post

"I said, 'Are you willing to give up your nuclear weapons?' and he said yes," Egan says, "so I said, 'We're going right to the New York Times.' "

Egan is telling this story in order to explain a newspaper clipping mounted on the wall at Cubby's. Unlike most clippings displayed in eateries, it's not a restaurant review. It's a story that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on Nov. 3, 2002.The headline reads: "North Korea Says Nuclear Program Can Be Negotiated."

The article, by Times reporter Philip Shenon, recounted Shenon's exclusive interview with Han Song Ryol, who was then North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations. Han told Shenon that his government had changed its policy and was now willing to negotiate with the United States over its nuclear weapons program. Deep in the story was the revelation that earned the article a place of honor on the wall at Cubby's: "The North Korean Mission contacted The Times through a New Jersey restaurateur, Robert Egan."

It happened like this, Egan says: His friend, Ambassador Han, was worried that President Bush, who had dubbed North Korea a part of the "axis of evil," was planning to invade his country. Egan suggested that Han announce, through the Times, his willingness to negotiate. When Han and his bosses in Pyongyang agreed, Egan recalls, "I called Phil Shenon."

"He said he had a connection to the North Koreans -- and he did," Shenon remembers. "He sort of inserted himself into the situation. He has lines of communication with the North Koreans and he has a line to the State Department and he was keeping them informed on what he was doing. He's smart enough to know that this is a tricky game and he'd better let people know what he's doing."

Shenon's name is nowhere on the article that ran today, but today's article appears to reveal, for the first time, the name of Egan's State Department connection -- that would be David Straub, the former head of the State Department's Korea desk who accompanied Bill Clinton to Pyongyang.

And what's more, there's yet another Times article today referring to the "New York connection" -- again without explanation -- in a related article about Western analysts trying to read the tea leaves of the Clinton exchange for clues to North Korea's state of mind: 

For all the talk of the North’s isolation, Washington and Pyongyang hold regular back-channel talks through North Korea’s United Nations mission. The so-called “New York connection” laid the groundwork for Mr. Clinton’s visit and will likely play a part in what comes next . . . [my emphasis]

So not only do we have the Times apparently backdoor-ing a major detail about the connection of Egan to the State Department -- disclaimer, again: if Egan is the New York connection they're referring to -- but we now have that connection laying the groundwork for the Clinton rescure operation. This fact directly contradicts the Times own reporting in its main story. (That main story describes the sequence of events this way, with no mention of backdoor emissaries: "North Korea signaled its desire to have Mr. Clinton act as a special envoy in conversations with Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, who relayed that message to their families in the middle of July, according to a senior administration official. The message was passed to Mr. Gore, who contacted the White House, which then explored whether such a mission would be successful.")

The Times analysis story then goes on to report that "American officials are also eagerly interviewing David Straub, a former head of the State Department’s Korea desk, who accompanied Mr. Clinton to Pyongyang. Mr. Straub, who teaches at Stanford University, speaks Korean and took part in back-channel communications with North Koreans when he was in the government."

We could be wrong, but we bet that when all is said and done, there's gonna be a few more Times clippings on the wall at Cubby's. The question remains, though: why is the Times referring so obliquely to the "New York Connection" without explanation? Searching nytimes.com for "new york connection" + "north korea" brings up only the most recent articles. Since the details of Egan's connection to North Korea have been written about, at great length, by multiple reputable news outlets, why wouldn't the Times spend a graph and explain what it is? Are they protecting a source?
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