From Cork to Pyongyang – Irish seaweed is fuelling North Korea’s desire for sweet life
Chco-Pies are made of two layers of sponge with a layer of marshmallow in the middle, and coated with chocolate
Choco-Pie: to South Koreans, Choco-Pies are like Kimberley biscuits or Club Milks are in Ireland but to North Koreans, they are a form of currency, a symbol of South Korean prosperity and a marshmallow-filled delight that is hugely popular underground in the communist enclave
It’s strange to think of seaweed farmed off the coast of Cork becoming an ingredient in one of the great geopolitical stories of the age.
To South Koreans, Choco-Pies are like Kimberley biscuits or Club Milks are in Ireland – cheap, sugar-heavy snacks loved by children and a guilty pleasure for adults. They are made of two layers of sponge with a layer of marshmallow in the middle, and coated with chocolate. A little bit like Wagon Wheels, except smaller.
To North Koreans, they are a form of currency, a symbol of South Korean prosperity and a marshmallow-filled delight that is hugely popular underground in the communist enclave.
In New York earlier this year, there was an exhibition entitled The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea to examine the phenomenon of how important the snacks had become.
In the Kaesong industrial park, near the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas, companies would give them to workers as bonuses, as cash was not allowed. Workers would barter them or sell them on the black market at a huge premium, getting anything up to a day’s wages
Last year, when tensions between the two Koreas escalated over nuclear tests and US-Korean military exercises, the Kaesong plant closed and Pyongyang has pulled out the 50,000 workers from the 120 plants there.
These treasured foodstuffs contain a crucial Irish element – seaweed imported from Cork by a company called Biodelta Korea Corporation, whose president Ahn Cheol-song has visited Ireland many times over the 20 years he has been importing the seaweed.
“Ireland’s seaweed is contributing nutrition to North Korean children, and I hope Choco-Pies with Irish seaweed culture will contribute to the health of North Korean children,” Mr Ahn said at an Irish event in Seoul during the trade mission. “But Choco-Pies are very, very expensive in North Korea. ”
He has a bag of foods that use the Irish seaweed, including baby food, crisps and a drink called Ca70, which contains 70 minerals. All of the food is clearly marked as containing Irish seaweed. It is a major selling point.
His Irish supplier is Marigot, a producer of natural ingredients, in Carrigaline, Co Cork. “The seaweed is processed in Cork and we sell it to Korean food companies. Seaweed is good for nutrition. It’s good for osteoporosis in menopausal women,” said Mr Ahn.
Last week, officials from both Koreas met for talks to discuss matters related to the jointly-run Kaesong complex. There has been little contact since last December when relations were very tense.
Earlier this month, South Korea said it would raise the salary of North Korean workers at the complex by 5 per cent, though they didn’t say if that would include Choco-Pie bonuses or not.