Glenn Garvin: A true tale of (choco) pie in the sky

08/04/2014 5:33 PM

08/20/2014 6:43 PM

They call economics the dismal science. Actually, during my years as a foreign correspondent, I found it pretty lively, especially in countries with left-wing governments attempting to rewrite the laws of supply and demand.

Consider this lesson in monetary theory in Marxist-governed Nicaragua, where a reporter colleague wanted to pay a peasant who had helped her with her broken Jeep. He diffidently replied that he didn’t want any cordobas, the local currency, but wouldn’t mind a couple of hard-to-find rolls of toilet paper. When a government’s money is literally not worth wiping your rear end with, well, that’s inflation.

Then there’s this lurid example from Cuba of the havoc wrought by attempts to tamper with the supply-and-demand curves. Farmers, forced to sell their beef at lowball prices to the government and forbidden to slaughter any for personal consumption, resorted to “cow suicide,” tying the heads of cattle to railroad tracks, then reporting them killed in accidents.

My new favorite example of fun with economics comes from North Korea, where the government has banned dessert. This may seem counterproductive — not to mention pointless — in a country where food is so scarce that families sometimes assign children to poke through roadside cattle manure in hopes of finding undigested kernels of corn.

But the Choco Pie — a confection of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallow, similar to the Moon Pies that (coupled with an RC Cola) have been a staple of cuisine in Alabama and Georgia for about a century — is regarded as downright sinister by North Korea’s totalitarian regime.

Introduced to Koreans by U.S. troops in the mid-1950s, Moon Pies grew so popular that local bakeries began making their own version, the Choco Pie. Soon they were wildly popular all over Asia, selling by the billions, and courtroom wrangling over the name filled entire volumes of South Korean law books.

The Choco Pie began its assault on Marxist economic orthodoxy in 2004, when the two Koreas launched an experiment in economic cooperation, an industrial park in the North Korean of Kaesong. South Korean manufacturers provided the technology and North Korean commissars the labor to produce porcelain, textiles . . . and Choco Pies.

Pyongyang was anxious for the hard currency generated by the industrial park, but adamant that its workers not get any funny ideas about capitalism possibly benefiting the proletariat. So South Korean managers had to pay the employees’ salaries (in hard currency) to the North Korean government, which passed along about half (in not-worth-wiping-your-rear-with local currency) to the workers. Bonuses or merit raises, of course, were strictly forbidden.

It only took South Korean bosses a few months to figure out how to get around the ban on bonuses: They began rewarding productive workers with Choco Pies. At first, the North Korean workers ate them.

Then, mysteriously, they stopped: Bosses noticed that empty Choco Pie wrappers were no longer found in the factory trash bins. Maybe Pyongyang really had succeeded where Lenin, Stalin and Castro had failed and constructed a New Man, or at least a New Man’s Palate, immune to the allure of capitalist junk food.

Dream on, guys. It was exactly the reverse: Choco Pies had nourished the long-dormant entrepreneurial virus in the hearts of the North Korean workers. They were taking the pies home and selling them to neighbors. So were the North Korean guards at the industrial park who extorted pies in return for ignoring petty violations of the rules.

The South Korean press soon reported a hearty trade in Choco Pies up north, with an estimated 2.5 million changing hands at prices up to $9.50 apiece — a gigantic sum for the industrial park workers, who make $57 a month. In New York, an exile artist opened a show called The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea.

The economic and political implications of the Choco Pie — that life outside North Korea is not as harsh or drab as the government in Pyongyang insists, that food is so plentiful that companies have the resources to make things just because they taste good — were clear to Pyongyang.

The government first tried to fight the Choco Pie with rumors (the pies were poisoned with “weird substances”), then with imitation (a North Korean factory tried to make Choco Pies with rice instead of graham crackers) and now finally with an outright ban.

South Koreans struck back last week strapping several hundred pounds of Choco Pies to helium balloons and releasing them near the border. Lenin used to talk about capitalists selling communists the rope with which they’ll hang us. Does anybody know if he had anything to say about Choco Pies?

About Glenn Garvin

Glenn Garvin

@glenngarvin

Glenn Garvin spent nearly 20 years as a foreign correspondent and 12 more as the Herald's TV critic. He is a 1975 graduate of Stanford University.

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