The Biggest Threat to North Korea Might Be Dessert

This past summer, some 200 South Korean activists and North Korean defectors launched 50 balloons into North Korea. The purpose? To deliver 10,000 Choco Pies—a cake and marshmallow combination coated in chocolate (think Moon Pie)—to the citizens of North Korea.

The pies saw their introduction in North Korea in 2004. The treats were given to North Korean factory workers as an incentive to work overtime hours in the Kaesong industrial complex. Near the DMZ, the factory employed both North and South Koreans. The North Korean government would not allow their workers to receive overtime wages—but they could take Choco Pies as compensation.

In a country that suffers from untold repression and extreme poverty (the country received an 18 out of 100 on the Global Hunger Index scale for 2013), it comes as no surprise that a black market emerged for the treats. As opposed to eating them, workers would take the pies home to friends or family, or sell the pies. At one point, a single pie could fetch as much as $24 on the black market. It was at this point, the North Korean government decided to crackdown on the distribution of the Choco Pie, calling it a “symbol of capitalism.”

Many would leave the story here. One of the most secretive and repressive regimes in the world has a strong reaction to something seemingly trivial. But the tale of the Choco Pie illustrates something more important—the power of exchange. When individuals come together and trade, new methods of production are discovered, ideas are traded, wealth is created, and everyone is made better off. Exchange invites advancement. Exchange brings change.

When discussing how to respond to the actions of nations like North Korea, Iran, it is typical for the U.S. and broader international community to discuss sanctions as a means of punishment. These sanctions, it is hoped, will force the non-cooperative regime to comply with international pressures.

While this idea may sound appealing, such sanctions are not likely to force changes among the political elites in Pyongyang. In fact, such policies may be counterproductive. Eliminating trade with North Korea only further isolates a country that has diligently eradicated as much outside influence as possible. While such sanctions may assist the North Korean government in achieving its goals, they are detrimental to North Korean citizens as they further restrict their already limited choices.

What if instead of severing ties with nations like North Korea, policymakers encouraged exchange? Instead of imposing sanctions, open trade. Even if only a small amount of goods and services are ultimately allowed, what impact might they have on the people of North Korea? Let’s not forget that when goods and services flow across borders, so do ideas. Ideas are powerful. Ideas bring change. For decades, international forces have looked to bring the “hermit kingdom” out of its shell, by crushing it under sanctions. Open trade would be a better policy. Not only would it increase the flow of goods to individuals who desperately need them, but may work to bring the ideas which can ultimately change a ruthless and repressive regime.

It’s change that is the biggest threat to the North Korean government. The entry and proliferation of “outside products” illustrates weakness in the government’s attempt to completely isolate the citizenry. Today, a Choco Pie causes a government crackdown. Tomorrow, trade in Snickers, Reese’s Cups, and Skittles, could cause the government to crack.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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