Forget Mallomars and MoonPies. In North Korea, the most politically isolated nation on earth, Choco Pies are the preferred sweet snack.
Choco Pies are individually wrapped cakes with marshmallow filling and a chocolate covering. The perennially popular treats, which evoke childhood memories for many Koreans, offer a unique view into North Korea's growing private enterprise economy.
When a factory complex that North and South Korea share reopened last month after a closure of roughly five months, employees got fewer Choco Pies, which are part of their compensation, NK News reported. While payment in Choco Pies is curious in itself, Korea watchers say reducing the number of treats is significant because it symbolizes a government trying to keep free-market forces in check.
Entrepreneurial North Koreans sell the snacks in the country's large markets, which are tacitly tolerated by authorities. "I would not describe them as 'black markets,' " said Andrei Lankov, history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. Choco Pies also are exchanged in the markets for more substantial food items and other necessities.
"The North Korean authorities likely want to reduce the number of pies employees receive to something closer to what the employees will themselves consume, thus significantly reducing the sales of Choco Pies to third parties," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group. "The authorities may thus hope to reign in market forces and information flows coming out of Kaesong and into the North more broadly," he said.
A tighter budget resulting from the halt in the complex's operations had cut the number of snacks workers receive, according to the Kaesong Industrial Complex Company Association.
In fact, South Korean companies based in the complex use Choco Pies as a major hiring incentive. "They're easily sellable and valuable in terms of providing money for staples," Bennett said.
Workers at the Kaesong complex also get the equivalent of $100 a month in wages (though it's estimated that the North Korean government pockets between 50 percent and 65 percent of that).
But Choco Pies appeal lies beyond its resale value. The snack exemplifies modern prosperity outside North Korea's guarded borders.
"It symbolizes South Korea's prosperity, sophistication and progress," said Lankov, who highlights the country in a new book, "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia." A native of the former Soviet Union, Lankov lived in North Korea as an exchange student in the 1980s. "Like canned beer in the Soviet Union of my youth, [the Choco Pie] shows that the surrounding world is rich and full of wonders—gastronomical and otherwise," he said.