Pictured above are something called “choco pies.” They’re two pieces of cake with a marshmallow-y filling in between, all covered with a layer of chocolate. In the U.S., at least, you can find them for about a buck a piece, although they’re not very popular there or in most of the West. But in parts of Asia — China, Vietnam, and South Korea in particular — choco pies are a staple of snack time.
And in North Korea? Well, it’s complicated.
In 2002, North and South Korea opened something called the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a jointly-operated industrial park situated north of the demilitarized zone and, therefore, within North Korea. It is designed to ease political and economic tensions between the two nations. Companies from South Korea (and some staff) operated factories in the region, employing more than 50,000 North Korean workers. As Wikipedia notes, “the park allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled, and fluent in Korean, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency.” (Due to the recent North Korean satellite launch, the industrial park is currently not operating.) And, as a side effect of the Zone, North Koreans were introduced to choco pies.
Choco pies quickly became a favorite among North Korean workers who, in turn, introduced them to their families. Choco pies became part of the daily routine; as Chosun reported in 2010, the South Korean employers at Kaesong decided to provide North Korean workers with two or three of choco pies per person per day. That seems like a nice way to treat their employees, but it turned out to be more than just dessert. The treats became a major part of the North Korean economy.
At the time, North Korean workers at Kaesong earned the equivalent of $57 per month. Even at $1 a piece, a dozen or so choco pies a week could roughly double a worker’s salary. But prices didn’t match that of free markets. A black market for choco pies emerged, and prices spiked, hitting as high as $9.50. Apparently, South Korea responded by giving out even more choco pies, and at one point, some workers were getting as many as twenty of the treats in a single day. Choco pies became de facto currency in North Korea.
Not wanting to accept this unchecked triumph of confection capitalism, in late 2013, North Korea insisted that the gift of free snacks be curtailed significantly. Workers could receive a maximum of $0.20 of chocolate pies (about two a day, their prices having collapsed). But that ultimately wasn’t enough for to appease the communist regime. In July 2014, the Washington Post reported that North Korea had banned the distribution of choco pies at Kaesong, with most observers citing the treat’s alternative use as cash as the reason why.
And then, things went nuts.
In response to the North Korean crackdown on choco pies, South Korean activists took actions into their own hands. As USA Today explained, “nearly 200 activists released the 50 large helium balloons carrying 10,000 Choco Pies — a combination of a chocolate-coated cake and marshmallow — across the North Korea border.” (If you hit that link you’ll see a picture of these pie-delivery balloons.) The idea took off, and pie launches became more and more common (and often paired with anti-North Korean propaganda). Pies floated over the border regularly for about a year.
Of course, North Korea wasn’t simply going to give in. In July of 2015, per the Telegraph, North Korea began producing its own, knockoff choco pies. The gambit was apparently successful: “South Korean versions have all but disappeared from Pyongyang’s markets,” per the Telegraph.
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