How Chocolate Pie became a threat to North Korea’s regime stability

The old saying goes, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. What if I told you that it could do even more?

The Choco Pie grabbed international headlines when it was banned by North Korea in 2014, with Kim Jong-un labelling it as a threat to regime stability.

Choco Pies were distributed to North Korean workers in the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex initially as an energy boosting snack, as these workers had to walk for miles to report for work due to the absence of public transport in the North. It is evident that the Choco Pie had made its way into their hearts and stomachs rather quickly, and the bourgeoisie from the South quickly capitalised on this by offering remuneration for their efforts in the form of Choco Pies rather than cash. Black markets soon emerged as the tale of the fabled Choco Pie spreads around the villages, and a Choco Pie could go as much as the equivalent of 10 US dollars per pie, whereas its value in South Korea, where it is manufactured, is only worth the equivalent of a packet of Oreos back here in Singapore. To many North Koreans, ten dollars is a small price to pay to hold in their hands and in their mouths decadence and sophistication in the form of a carefully and tastefully engineered snack, to have a minuscule experience of what the Western culture feels and tastes with each bite, and to learn the basics of capitalism and self-sufficiency with every Choco Pie bought, bartered or smuggled.

A simple treat like this has the power to change impressions and perceptions. People in the North who are exposed to this have become more open and accepting towards Western culture and ideas; ‘Hey, maybe democracy and capitalism isn’t that bad after all’. And their neighbours in the South have taken notice of the potential for the Choco Pie to do much more. Waves and waves of giant balloons filled with Choco Pies and propaganda pamphlets were sent to the North of the 38th Parallel, in an effort to fuel sentiments of reunification and the demise of the Regime. International media outlets too have reported consistently on the entire saga, inadvertently stealing the attention of the global community, framing the issue in such a manner which could be understood very well by its Western audience by dwelling on the theme of “Human Rights”.

This event has gained the attention of many, and had even found its way into art. “The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea” was an art exhibition in New York that featured the works of Jin Joo Chae, an ethnic South Korean. Her work echoes the significance of the Choco Pie in the North, seeing it as a parallel to what Coca Cola means to American. Beyond the individual perspective, the artist is clearly hinting towards the North’s eventual embrace of capitalism, understood through the embrace of Coca Cola, which is a more than capable representative for what capitalism stands for. Such initiatives have the power to influence outsiders, which may be more important in the area of reunification. A country that is divided by external forces may only be pieced back together with the presence of aliens again, after decades of failed bilateral negotiations and initiatives.

It is indeed baffling to witness how an innocent snack such as the Choco Pie, which is barely worth a dollar in its country of origin, could potentially bring an entire Regime spanning three generations with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, to its potential (and eventual) demise. May we feel more empowered, beyond nutrition, the next time we gobble down that Double McSpicy, which in my opinion is arguably the mascot for Singaporean comfort food.

The Kent Ridge Common is an independent news publication run by students and alumni of The National University of Singapore. Since Jan 2009, we have been consistently a source of independent news coverage, commentaries and opinion on current affairs both local and international, and also as a fresh guide to the Arts and Culture, style, living and entertainment in Singapore. The Kent Ridge Common ranks as one of the most read student-based publication on the internet.


Originally published at singaporedaily.net on September 20, 2016.