During the glory days of the Cold War, the Kremlin was scared shitless by Levi’s, McDonald’s, and other symbols of decadent Western culture. That is no longer the case.
This past October, visitors to Lenin's tomb in Moscow were turned away because the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution wasn’t receiving visitors. Why not? A Coca-Cola–sponsored stage set up to promote the Sochi Olympics was blocking the entrance to his tomb.
In North Korea, however, the regime still considers foreign-made consumer products potentially dangerous. But it’s not blue jeans and Big Macs Kim Jong-un is currently worried about. No, he's trying to keep out the sinister influence of the somewhat tasty South Korean Choco Pie.
Seoul-based Orion Confectionery began producing the Choco Pie in 1974 — a pretty blatant ripoff of the Tennessee-born Moon Pie. Thirty years later, during a period of wary cooperation between the North and South, South Korean businesses began running factories in Kaesong, a 25-square-mile special administrative zone just across the border in North Korea. Today, 125 South Korean companies employ 52,000 North Korean workers there. The North Korean regime is paid about $100 a month for each employee, each one of whom is then given roughly $67 of that.
But Pyongyang forbids South Korean factory managers at Kaesong from paying bonuses or cash incentives to North Korean workers. And so they began rewarding them with Choco Pies.
Choco Pies were essentially used as currency by North Koreans, much like prison inmates might use cigarettes.
Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says that while Choco Pies are “not nearly as good” as the Moon Pie, they're essentially used as currency by North Koreans much like prison inmates might use cigarettes. North Koreans reportedly value Choco Pies at anywhere from 80 cents to $10 — a lot of money in the DPRK — and some Kaesong workers were getting up to 20 Choco Pies per shift.
The North Korean regime was not okay with this. And so state security forces initially attempted to wage a propaganda campaign against Choco Pies, saying “If the products from the ‘neighborhood downstairs’ are enjoyed unconditionally, the ideology of the people could wither at any moment.” And now, according to South Korean news reports, Pyongyang has outright banned the pies from Kaesong. Workers can be rewarded with sausages, instant noodles, coffee, and chocolate bars — but not Choco Pies.
One Western businessman who regularly travels to the DPRK and just returned from 10 days in-country — he requested anonymity to avoid any backlash from the North Korean regime — tells VICE News that he didn’t see a single Choco Pie in Kaesong. “Orion Choco Pie wrappers used to be common trash up on Jangsu Hill in Kaesong,” he says. “This time I didn't see them.”
Though it might seem counterintuitive in the “Hermit Kingdom,” there is, in fact, a fairly high level of awareness there of foreign brands. Christopher Graper, a guide with North Korea specialists Koryo Tours who also curates a huge collection of historical North Korean images and artifacts for his RetroDPRK project, says it’s “very easy to find foreign brands all the way back to the '60s and '70s, even in propaganda images.”
Graper explains that these would have all been “likely gifted from overseas Koreans, or donated in some sort of butter trade with other socialist countries." He also points out that Kim Jong-il’s black Mercedes was immortalized as a backdrop in Pyongyang’s annual Mass Games, held at the Rungnado May Day Stadium every autumn.
As serious as Kim clearly is about the capitalist influence of mediocre baked goods, those working to disarm the regime tell VICE News they can’t be bothered.
"I don’t comment on Choco Pies,” says Tony Namkung, a high-level negotiator who has accompanied Governor Bill Richardson, President Jimmy Carter, and Google’s Eric Schmidt to North Korea. “We’re trying to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.”
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich
Photo via Flickr