Lifestyle & Belief

Gulags? Missiles? Not to fear, Choco Pies are here


These sugary snacks could be South Korea's greatest weapon of food diplomacy.



SEOUL, South Korea — In the classic Korean mystery film JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), a South Korean soldier strays north of the demilitarized zone at the border between North and South Korea and unexpectedly befriends a handful of North Korean enemies.

Later, the southern capitalist brings his new buddies a box of marshmallow-filled snacks known as Choco Pies. His North Korean pals stuff their faces in enjoyment.

Choco Pies are an iconic chocolate food in South Korea, much like Oreos are a cultural trademark of the US. 

They're so tasty that the infantryman even offers them as a reason to defect south. "You can eat all the Choco Pies you want!" he exclaims.

Yesterday, the Guardian laid out this love of Choco Pies in North Korea, and how they first became a bonus for North Korean factory workers employed by South Korean managers at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the border. (North Korea outlawed cash bonuses because they were considered too capitalist.)

In the North, the snacks are resold at four times the price of a box at most mini-markets here in Seoul, where a box of twelve costs about $3.60.

The piece asks: Can Choco Pies be a force for change in North Korea? Korean specialist Andrei Lankov tells the Guardian:

"It has become a symbol of South Korean prosperity – and North Koreans read it. They are suffering and starving, but thanks to Choco Pies, DVDs and large-scale labor migration to China, people don't buy the old story [that the South is even poorer] and the government does not sell it any more."

It's part of a larger story that many experts are putting forward, arguing that the garrison state is experiencing all sorts of changes from the bottom that could, at least eventually, upend the regime.