Morale: A Pie To Die For


August 28, 2015: As if North Korea does not have enough problems one of the most annoying has to do with South Korean snack foods getting into the country and becoming enormously popular. It got so bad that in June 2015 North Korea ordered South Korean companies operating in a special zone in the north to stop bringing in South Korean snacks as rewards for North Korean employees. This follows a 2014 ban of Choco Pies and the subsequent failure of a substitute made in North Korea. This was a demoralizing defeat for North Korea leaders who thought they could compete with foreign consumer goods. The North Korean answer to Choco Pies was used with ingredients imported (at great expense) from China. Rather than demonstrating the superiority of North Korean industry the failed snack food (described as bland and not tasting much like chocolate) increased the desirability of the real thing.

Choco Pies are a cheap (about 25 cents each) chocolate covered vanilla cream filled cake snack in South Korea but for North Koreans they are a special and very popular treat. Not many sweets are available in North Korea and the Choco Pies (based on a similar popular World War I era snack in the American south) has been tweaked to appeal to Korean tastes. Each 30 gm (1.1 ounce) Choco Pie has about 125 calories.

Choco Pies entered North Korea in large quantities after 2004 when the Kaesong Industrial Complex opened in North Korea. There, over a hundred South Korean companies set up shop and employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. The complex was as a place for South Korean firms to establish factories, using cheaper North Korean workers. The South Korean employers had to pass all worker compensation through the North Korean government and were forbidden to pay workers directly. The North Korean government wanted nothing to do with capitalist practices like better pay for superior performance. The South Koreans found that they could get away with giving snacks to workers as secret bonuses and thus motivate their North Korean employees.

Choco Pies were particularly popular because they brought the highest prices on the North Korean black market (a dollar or more each). The North Korean government was not happy with the popularity and growing availability of Choco Pies, which were a tasty reminder that life was better in the capitalist south. For decades North Korean propaganda had insisted that South Koreans were worse off. How was that possible if the southerners had all the Choco Pies they wanted? 

North Korea officials are not completely clueless and were persuaded to allow South Korean managers to give out other snacks from the south (sausages and chocolates are popular as are instant noodles). But this did not last. North Korea workers at Kaesong were not happy with the Choco Pie ban because North Korean snacks are considered inferior and southerners who have tried some of this stuff agree. There are frequently cases of food poisoning with North Korean snack foods and now the government is embarrassed that its effort to compete with or ban the Choco Pie has been a very visible and foul tasting failure. Nevertheless it is now a serious crime in North Korea if you are caught with Choco Pies. Execution or a slow and painful death in a labor camp are possible for Choco Pie offenders.





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