As my reader may be aware, North Korea is without doubt the most closed and secretive country on earth. For North Korea, arch enemy number one and the very devil incarnate is the United States which, we are told, is to blame for all the ills and woes of the country despite the heroic efforts of the Kim dynasty.
While the US and many other countries have very strict controls as to what their citizens/companies can export to North Korea, North Korea also has very strict controls as to what foreign goods (read influences) are permitted into the country, unless of course they are for the Leadership in which case anything can be imported. Suffice to say, one would have thought that what many see as symbols of American imperialism would be absent from the North Korean landscape. Indeed, you will not find McDonalds, Pizza Hut, PepsiCo, Starbucks or any other US based companies in North Korea. In fact, there are very, very few foreign entities with representation in North Korea.
You will, however, find Coca Cola (including my preferred Coke Zero) and it is the ‘Real Thing’!
When I say that, you will not find a Coca Cola office here or a bottling plant but you will, relatively easily, find the drink. It and many other, albeit less prominent, western items are smuggled into the country via China and a number of other Asian countries. It was especially interesting to see the quantity of Singaporean items (biscuits, snack foods and the like) available. Officially Coca Cola cannot be bought or sold in only two countries in the world – North Korea and Cuba (Jan 2017 update – possibly only North Korea now!).
Of course, just because these items are on sale at shops and restaurants frequented by tourists does not mean they are readily available in local supermarkets, etc. I do not know.
The one foreign item that I know locals do (or perhaps now – did) have access to are South Korean Choco Pies – something which has the potential to create a diplomatic crisis. A Choco Pie comprises two small round layers of cake with a marshmallow filling and chocolate covering – picture below from Orion Company Website. They are similar to Wagon Wheels for those who can identify with them.
Why are these pies causing such concern?
In 2004 North Korea opened a special economic zone/ industrial park in Kaesong about 20km north of the South Korean Border. Around 120 South Korean companies have set up business in this area and overall the endeavour has been a great success for North Korea and presumably also the South Korean investors. The zone employs around 50,000 North Korean workers. While the workers are paid in cash for their work, cash bonuses are prohibited so the South Korean companies have taken to paying bonuses in Choco Pies and herein lies the problem.
The locals immediately took to the taste of these pies and their value on the black market soared (to several times their regular value). The initial reaction of the North Korean Government was to make its own Choco Pies (copied from the South Korean pie – no worries about copyright in North Korea). The ‘loyal’ North Korea citizenry did not like the new Choco Pies and continued to pay over the odds on the black market for the South Korean pies. Is such dissent the beginning of a revolution?
Why would the North Koreans have developed this fetish for Choco Pies when delicious army produced food is available? The picture below, from the Korean Central News Agency, shows current Leader Kim Jong-un inspecting and offering guidance to the army on its alternatives to the Choco Pie. The good Marshal Kim does not look that impressed.
The Government has now banned the payment of bonuses via Choco Pies. What happens next remains to be seen though when I originally wrote this review (July 2014) some reports suggested that workers were being paid bonuses in sausages, instant noodles, powdered coffee and cold noodles!
Back in 2012 the South Korean based DailyNK reported that members of various defector organisations sent balloons filled with Choco Pies and CDs critical of the North Korea Government into the country (picture below copyright Yonyap – DailyNK). Look up when you visit it might be raining Choco Pies.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries providing general and background information on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to, and travelling in, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – The Media/Press & Freedom of Speech in North Korea. If necessary, go to my North Korea introduction entry – And now for something completely different – to start this loop at the beginning.