Chocolate–more than food in Korea

Chocolate has undergone multiple transformations throughout history. In Aztec and Mayan history, chocolate was medicine, staple and currency; in American and European history, a staple, aphrodisiac and guilty indulgence. In addition, the chocolate also took various forms: hot, foamy liquid in Aztec and Maya that later transformed into bars thanks to Van Houten’s inventions (Coe & Coe, 2013). Other than energizing food, the chocolate served as medicine, ritual center and currency in Aztec and Mayan civilizations that was changed back into a material of food and luxury in Europe. As supplies of sugar and chocolate rose, sugar and chocolate became a form of necessity in Western Hemisphere (Mintz, 1985). Chocolate industries fed and grew from such desires and searched for greater market abroad, especially in Asia that housed about 60% of the world’s population. As the influence of chocolate seeped into Asia, chocolate has been undergoing incorporations into pre-existing confections to give birth to different forms of chocolate snacks, such as Pocky and Choco-pie. This paper will discuss how chocolate came to be permeated in Korean everyday life, pop culture and politics and draw parallels to the history of chocolate.

Fig 1. Valentine’s Day in Korea is women buying chocolate for men (Cha, 2013)

The Big 5 Chocolate companies’ expansion into Chinese market and insights of Asian culture and marketing lend important insight into Korean market. Few of the Big 5 Chocolate companies’ take-aways from dominating the Chinese market was taking advantage of mass media and the gift-giving culture of China (Allen, 2009). Korea is a country located in South East Asia that has a deep rooted “couple-centric” culture in which young people in relationships exchange gifts to show goodwill, love and appreciation. The power of chocolate’s impact on popular culture can be seen in three “special” days of the year that people exchange gifts: Valentine’s Day, White Day and Peppero Day. While Valentine’s Day in the United States is often the male giving flowers, jewelry or chocolate to the women, Valentine’s in Korea is women buying men usually chocolate (Fig 1). 20% of the stores’ annual sales are due to women buying chocolate for men and convenience stores gain $2.8 billion USD from the Valentine’s sales (Cha 2013). In exchange, the men gift chocolate on White Day to symbolize their love for their girlfriends. The monopolization of chocolate over any other products as the symbol of love would be food industries’ use of mass media. Korea is known for pop culture deeply invading various facets of its culture and many of the advertisements encouraging chocolate for the special days are marked with the latest hot k-pop star that acted in the most recent romantic drama. The use of mass media in which actors and actresses associated with love stories is similar to advertisements in the U.S. that often suggest that chocolate is the way to a woman’s heart.

Another big day is Peppero Day in Korea on November 11th on which couples exchange a long, thin chocolate covered biscuits called “Peppero” to show love in both romantic and non-romantic relationships. Although the origin cannot be pin-pointed, many say that the day was created by big food industries to increase their income. Nonetheless, Peppero Day is another example of how much chocolate has permeated in Korean culture and daily lives. Peppero, also known as Pocky, was developed in Japan in 1966 as the world’s first chocolate covered biscuit. Then, Lotte company–one of the biggest food industry giant in Korea–created Peppero, a very similar snack, and marketed November 11th as the nation’s Peppero Day, announcing that the dates are representative of the shape of the snack. On this day, Peppero must be exchanged among loved ones, whether it’s romantic relationship, friendship, or family. Another brilliant marketing strategy. On this day, Lotte garners about 87 billion won ($81.6 million USD) between September and November from Peppro sales only (Gale, 2013). Again, the market strategy that the Big 5 Chocolate industries used in China can be seen in Lotte’s marketing of South Korea’s gift-giving culture. Interestingly, the Peppero has been ingrained in pop culture of South Korea through games and catchy, child-like medleys. An example can be seen in an embedded video in which Korea’s famous reality game show incorporates the chocolate snack into one of its infamous game and in Peppero Song and a cartoon of “Peppero Song” shows explicitly that peppero allows you to kiss a girl/guy you like. These pop culture references feeds into the positive feedback of food industry’s strategic marketing and pop culture that resulted in associating chocolate with love.

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Figure 2. Artist Jin Jo Chae illustrates how Chocopie is hailed in North Korea. (source: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/27/world/asia/choco-pie-koreas/)

Lastly, another impact that chocolate has had in Korean culture is peculiar and unexpected. Korea invented a snack called, “Chocopie.” Chocopie, a chocolate cake with marshmallow sandwiched inside that is similar to an American Twinkie, is widespread and common in South Korea. No one knew that such chocolate snack will have a political impact until a factory owner in Kaesong Industrial complex, an industrial unit in which both North and South Korean worked side by side and a symbol of North and South Korean cooperation, gave the snack to the North Korean workers. The owner described what he saw in the factory workers’ expression after consuming one as “ecstasy,” which was very surprising to him considering that Chocopie was a ubiquitous snack that cost less than 50 cents, yet the workers from North Korea do not seem to have such small luxury. Such notion lends insight into North Korea as a highly secluded, communist country in which citizens do not have the extravagance to have such simple sugar-filled chocolate snack. International Food Policy Research Institute stated that about 32% of the population is undernourished (Stoddard, 2011). The citizens of North Korea is similar to the lower and middle class in Europe to whom chocolate was an article of luxury.

As a result, the Chocopie distributed to the workers were taken back to either be given to other members of the family or be traded in the black market to add to their meager incomes: “…workers were hiding them and taking them home to give them to their children” (Park, 2014). Perhaps due to lack of food, the chocolate covered, empty calorie filled snack is a high value item in North Korea and adds significantly to the meager monthly income of $100 of the workers. According to analysts, the Chocopie goes for as much as $10 value in the black market, echoing cacao beans’ use as currency in ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations (De Mare). When South Korean media found about this, chocolate took another turn from currency into a political agent. South Koreans sent Chocopie along with other propaganda leaflets inside a balloon as depicted in Figure 3. Experts exclaim that the chocolate snack is an excellent propaganda material themselves: North Korean will see and taste the product of a capitalist country that their own economy does not produce. The symbolism of this treat in North Korea is captured by an artist in New York City, Jin Jo Chae, who stated, “Through this Choco Pie, I found the potential from chocolate as an object that changes a society” (Park, 2014). In the art exhibit, the artist combines chocolate and various slivers from daily lives to express that such small snack is having much impact in North Korea. Figure 2 shows Chocopie covered in gold, illustrating that the cheap, common snack item is highly valued in North Korea. The artist seemed to perfectly capture the notion that in Korea, chocolate is more than food: a symbol of love, a form of currency and political action against North Korean regime.

Korea is an interesting case study in which chocolate takes form of different snacks and permeates into various facets of their daily lives. When the food industries in Korea market the food item hailing from ancient Aztecs and Mayans, chocolate represents love and is an aphrodisiac and a pop-culture material. On the other hand, chocolate can have peculiar and powerful potential inside to transform and impact an infamous “Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea, as a propaganda material from South Korea, luxury item in North Korea and, most of all, product of capitalism. In all cases, the echoes from the history in which chocolate has traveled from ancient culture of South American continent to modern culture as food and love in Western Hemisphere can be heard in South Korea.

Figure 3. These balloons were filled with Chocopie and other propaganda leaflets into North Korea. (source: http://blogs.voanews.com/bosnian/photos/2012/04/24/april-24-2012/

Works Cited:

Allen, Lawrence. (2009) Chocolate Fortunes, Chapter 3: Cadbury, One Bilion Consumers, New York. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.

Cha, Frances. “In South Korea, Valentine’s Day is all about the men.” 14 February 2013.

Gale, Alastair. “On Pepero Day, a Japanese Rival Lurks.” The Wall Street Journal. 11 November 2013.

De Mare, Laurie. “A tasty currency: cocoa.” National Bank of Belgium.

Park, Madison, Frances Cha, and Evelio Contreras. “How Choco Pie infiltrated North Korea’s sweet tooth.” CNN. 27 January 2014.

Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson: London.

Stoaddard, Katy. “North Korea: 10 facts about one of the world’s most secretive states.” The Guardian.19 December 2011.

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