At a time when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are as high as ever, after an American, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” (he was arrested in the northeastern port city of Rason in North Korea in November while leading a group of Chinese business there) and the U.S. is trying to hold its ground about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, some reports have arisen about a very small sign of how residents of the world’s most secretive nation are finding out about “the other side.”
This would be the Choco Pie.
A Choco Pie pie is a “mouth-drying, individually wrapped slab of cake, marshmallow and chocolate” that occupies the same mythical place in a South Korean’s childhood “as Britain’s Mars bar or the American Twinkie,” writes Richard Lloyd Parry in the London Review of Books. Made by the South Korean company, Orion, Choco Pies entered North Korea around 2004 when, as part of an “unprecedented experiment in co-operation between the fraternal enemies,” South Korean companies were allowed to set up factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong, part of what the South Korean government referred to as its “Sunshine Policy.”
As South Korean managers could not offer North Korean workers something so “capitalist” as a cash bonus, they turned to an “informal incentive system,” rewarding workers with Choco Pies, as well as instant noodles and “mixed coffee sachets.” But rather than eat the pies, Kaesong workers (who are “the best paid in North Korea and among the worst paid in Asia”) have been hoarding them to use as what amounts to a form of black market currency. One Choco Pie can sell for $10 apiece. Corrupt North Korean soldiers have even demanded payment in the cakes for “fines” charged to South Korean businessmen.
Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with North Korean refugees, observes that the South Korean provenance of Choco Pies could be part of their “allure.” One North Korean woman who defected from Rason specifically cited the North’s “lack of fashion freedom” and of consumer goods as her reason for defecting. As Park notes, it is something of an understatement that North Koreans “don’t have a lot of options as consumers.”
Andrei Lankov, author of The Real North Korea, points out that Choco Pies counter the North Korean government’s claims about the impoverished South. The little cakes are an “important mind-changing instrument.”
A shortage of the pies could be in store as the North withdrew its 50,000 workers from Kaesong in May, after relations between the two countries escalated and North Korea made threats about its nuclear arsenal. After conversation about this impending reduction in the Choco Pie supply chain with a defector from North Korea, BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes discovered yet another sign of how not-so-isolated the North may be. The defector, who is now in Seoul in South Korea, told Wingfield-Hayes that he had called his father in North Korea on his cell phone, to tell him to go to China and buy a lot of Choco Pies as the price would likely go up.
That is, the defector’s father in North Korea has a cell phone that can receive international calls — so much for North Korea’s grand isolation. The phone is from China; the man’s father lives near the Chinese border and is able to access its network. Comments Wingfield-Hayes,
“This is a very different North Korea from the one portrayed in Pyongyang propaganda films. It is a country where the black economy is the real economy, where bribery rather than obedience is now the means of survival.”
Parry in the London Review of Books observes that, cute as it is, the story of the Choco Pie teaches us two things about North Korea. There is indeed a “susceptibility to outside influence in a society commonly regarded as impenetrable” (Wingfield-Hayes reports that North Korean families watch DVDs of South Korean TV dramas). Even more, “ordinary North Koreans are in most ways just like everyone else.”
That is, those images of rows on rows of North Koreans of all genders and ages wearing almost exactly the same clothes may not be due to all the country’s citizens sharing the same wish to all act alike and to express undying adoration for their government and leader. It might simply because that’s all that is available. Writes Parry:
North Koreans are not a ‘zombie nation’ (Martin Amis), an undifferentiated mass of ‘racist dwarfs’ (Christopher Hitchens), but 24 million individuals, as virtuous and vicious as the rest of us, and just as keen on sweet and sticky snacks.
None of this discounts the severity of the 15 year sentence of hard labor given to Bae, the sixth American known to have been arrested in North Korea since 2009. Those other Americans were deported or released, two in 2009 after former President Bill Clinton met with the then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and another in 2010 after former President Jimmy Carter visited. Currently the U.S. is urging North Korea to grant Bae amnesty.
As the Choco Pie story suggests, winning over North Korea is a battle that is being waged not only on rational terms or the diplomatic front. It is a matter very much of hearts, minds and stomachs.
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