Last week, I became slightly obsessed by this Asia Times story:

Pyongyang chokes on sweet capitalism

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may face a more pernicious challenge than either a “preemptive strike” by the United States or a power grab by generals eager to fill the power vacuum created by his illness.

Think Choco Pie, the thick wafer-like confection, all pastry and cream, served in the Kaesong Industrial Complex as a daily dessert for the 40,000 North Koreans who toil for 100 South Korean companies with factories in the complex.

“North Koreans love Choco Pie,” said Ha Tae-keung, president of NK Open Radio, which beams two hours of news daily into North Korea from its base in Seoul. “It’s an invasion of the stomach.”

Yes, North Koreans — long starved of, well, food, but particularly the kind of food only created by the unholy union of vast disposable incomes, Big Sugar and market forces — have developed a taste for South Korea’s most popular bikkie, and it’s undermining their whole political structure. Between 10,000 and 20,000 boxes of Choco Pies are shipped into the country every day, with demand so high, a black market has developed.

For a biscuit.

This was simultaneously one of the funniest and saddest things I’d heard in a while.

I have long enjoyed exploring Asian grocery stores, sampling random and mysterious sweets based solely on their crazy packaging and the promise of a sugar hit most likely not legal in locally-produced confectionery.

But a biscuit that was considered by an entire country as a “sweet symbol of capitalism”? This was no Pocky, Lentil Pea Chips, Hello Pandas or Durian Candy. This was revolutionary, political-uprising-inciting snack-food. I had to try a Choco Pie.

So, like the tech-savvy new media journalist-writery-blogger-something I am, I tweeted my intentions, receiving confirmation from a few others that they are around and available, including this very Carmen-Sandiego-esque lead:

@rbbrown Choco Pies keep Vietnam on its feet, I know that much.

That could only mean one thing: time to hit Victoria St, Richmond — home of Hunchbax Theatre Restaurant, Melbourne’s least secretive smack dealers, and more Vietnamese grocers and restaurants than you can poke a chopstick at.

And they say investigative journalism is dead.

Getting off the always entertaining 109 tram, my keen reporter senses started to tingle — lying prophetically on the tram stop bench were three empty Choco Pie wrappers! Watch your job, Seymour Hersh.

The Twitter tip-off had borne fruit and Korean chocolate goodness was within my grasp.

I stepped into the nearest grocery-cum-liquor-store and sure enough, boxes and boxes of Orion Choco Pie were there to greet me.

“It’s now!” read the slogan on the box. Indeed.

I returned triumphantly to the Crikey batcave with my prize in hand (and a large pack of some sort of Vietnamese peanut brittle-type confection I got for $2, which was delightful and enjoyed by all, but is really neither here nor there), placed the box in the middle of the morning editorial meeting table, and regaled my colleagues with the story of North Korea’s black market capitalist treats.

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We tore eagerly into the individually-wrapped packages (tut-tutting the wastefulness of course, as is our sworn duty as warriors of the new green morality), ready to sample the sweet flavours of the free market.

Each “pie” was a round, soft puffy biscuit, slightly larger than an Arnott’s Royal. We bit in — it was crumblier than expected, a thin layer of chocolate coating two spongy biscuits, sandwiching a middle layer of marshmallow.

And the taste?

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Utterly underwhelming. Political revolution was not incited.

“Too dry!” declared Crikey editor Jonathan Green.

“It needs jam,” agreed Sophie Black. “If it was a Wagon Wheel, then I’d overthrow the government.”

“It would take more than Choco Pie to stop me being an anarcho-syndicalist,” said First Dog on the Moon, before complaining of stomach pains.

“I’m in the middle of eating a banana,” said the always contrary Andrew Crook.

However, outside of the Bolshie love-fest that is the Crikey editorial team, there was a small amount of support for the uprising-inciting powers of the snack.

“The marshmallow filling represents capitalism well,” acknowledged website editor Jane Nethercote diplomatically. “It represents freedom.”

Enthusiastic supporters of private enterprise and noted members of the bourgeoisie, SmartCompany, were also more positive about the pulling power of the Choco Pie.

“It would convince me,” said editor James Thomson with a thumbs up, suggesting a milk arrowroot, runt of the Arnott’s Family Assorted collection, as a more appropriate confection for keeping workers’ spirits low and compliant.

Ultimately, though, the Choco Pie didn’t quite live up to the hype, and all agreed it was a bit of a poor-man’s Wagon Wheel.

World leaders take note: to win the hearts and minds of North Koreans, you may need more candy power on your side. I recommend $2 Vietnamese peanut brittle.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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