Despite years of international sanctions, North Korea hasn’t budged in unlocking the doors to its closed economy. But one possible tool for wedging open the recluse nation may be a popular chocolate treat.
On Wednesday, hundreds of South Korean activists – along with North Korean defectors – blew up balloons containing thousands of Choco Pies and flew them over the border.
They were acting in response to a North Korean ban on the perennially popular chocolate confections, a sign of the difficulty in staving off its capitalist neighbor’s influence.
After months of simmering tension between the two bitterly divided nations, the hermit kingdom’s leader, Kim Jong-un, banned pies from the country earlier in July, due to a fear that the chocolate would inspire an upheaval.
Choco Pies are produced by South Korea’s Orion Confectionary but became popular in the north due to an unusual reason.
The chocolates were initially exported north in lieu of cash bonuses, according to The Guardian. Bosses were prohibited from granting bonuses to North Korean employees – a reward deemed too capitalist – so they turned to providing alternative incentives.
On the black market, Choco pies sell for three to four times their market price, and are an important bartering tool.
"The fact they are from South Korea is probably part of the allure. North Koreans don't have a lot of options as consumers," Sokeel Park, a director at Liberty in North Korea, told The Guardian.
The pies have attained political symbolism, a sign of South Korea’s vibrant free market economy. As the South Korean paper, DailyNK notes:
Choco Pies have played an integral role in the 10-year history of the Kaesong inter-Korean manufacturing project, helping the spread of Hallyu [the Korean Wave of pop culture] in the North and leaving officials concerned over how to deal with the potential for cultural contamination.
The prohibition on chocolate confections comes on the heels of increasing strife between the two linguistically and ethnically bound nations. In April, North Korea severed operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint manufacturing initiative between the two countries.
But ending the country’s appetite for the chocolate delicacies may prove out-of-reach.
A quick query of “Choco pies” on Korean news sites reveals Mr. Kim’s government has tried for years to end his country’s obsession with the treat. As recently as April, an estimated 40-50,000 individually-wrapped Choco Pies were traded daily in North Korea, reported DailyNK.
The treats are also imported from elsewhere. North Koreans regularly ask family and friends traveling in China to stock up on the chocolate confections in order to sell them back home and garner a profit, reported the BBC.
Due to the more traversable Chinese-Korean border, the northern part of the country may be “quietly liberalizing,” reported The Washington Post.