Choco Pies vs. Cold Noodles

09/16/2010 08:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the blockbuster 2000 film JSA, two South Korean soldiers accidentally find themselves on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area, at the border between the two countries. They meet their North Korean counterparts. But instead of fighting, the four soldiers become friends and arrange several midnight get-togethers. At the height of their secret fraternization, one of the South Korean soldiers brings over several Choco Pies, cookies with marshmallow covered in chocolate that are wildly popular in South Korea.

The North Korean soldiers are delighted. "Why can't our Republic make Choco Pies like this?" one of the North Koreans says wistfully.

"Come south," suggest the South Koreans. "Then you can eat Choco Pies until you burst."

There is a stunned silence as the North Korean soldier spits the cookie into his hand. "I'm only going to tell you this only once," he says sternly. "My dream is that one day our Republic will make the best damned sweets on the peninsula." After this awkward moment, the soldier stuffs the cookie back in his mouth, and the foursome resumes their friendly banter.

The two Koreas have faced off across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for six decades. Although they are connected by ethnic and familial bonds, and although traffic between the two countries has increased over the last decade, North and South Korea remain worlds apart, and their cultures have developed along very different trajectories. The conflicts that keep the two Koreas culturally distinct have even filtered down to the realm of food.

Consider the Choco Pie. Produced by a major South Korean conglomerate, the cookie represents the consumer wealth and the globalization of South Korean culture. It's made of wheat, not the rice of traditional Korean desserts, and is clearly modeled after the classic Moon Pie of the southern United States. In the scene from JSA, the North Korean soldier rejects the lure of South Korean wealth and the corrupting influences of the world beyond the Korean peninsula. He asserts that his country, through its own efforts, will one day win the Korean peninsula contest for best sweets.

This stubborn pride of the North Koreans -- better a hungry wolf than a well-fed lapdog, the Northerners often say -- helps to explain the defiant military posturing of the leadership as well as the nationalist sympathies of the population. North Korea may well admire the prosperity of the West, but it will not sell its birthright for a mess of pottage (or Choco Pies).

Which brings us to the other side of the equation: cold noodles. The food that best represents North Korea's pride in resisting the corrupting influences of the outside world is naengmyen, or cold noodles. Pyongyang-style cold noodles -- thin buckwheat noodles in a broth with a slice of beef, a hard-boiled egg, and piece of Korean pear -- are a delicacy throughout the two Koreas and outside the peninsula. But North Koreans boast that the best naengmyen can be found at the huge cold-noodle restaurant in Pyongyang called Ongnyugwan. When I visited North Korea in the late 1990s, my guide said proudly that South Korean tourists beg to eat at Ongnyugwan, where they routinely slurp down as many as three bowls. Cold noodles, unlike Choco Pies, are a traditional Korean dish. Naengmyen represents all that is "pure Korean," nationalist, and self-reliant in North Korean culture. But this division in food culture between North and South -- between the global and the local -- isn't quite as stark as either the film JSA or North Korean propaganda might have us believe.

For one thing, Korean food has been subject to globalization for many thousands of years, even the food eaten in the North. Rice and buckwheat came from China during the Bronze Age, barbecue meat (bulgogi) from the Mongols in the 13th century, the red pepper in kimchi (pickled vegetables) from the New World through Portugal and Japan in the 16th century.

After World War II and the division of the peninsula, South Korea began to absorb distinctly American influences. Hungry Koreans during the Korean War, for instance, scavenged cans of Spam from American soldiers and put the meat into a dish dubbed "battalion stew." Today, after South Korea has gone from having the GDP of a sub-Saharan African country to being one of the top dozen economies in the world in the space of a single generation, this "battalion stew" has become a trendy dish among young people in Seoul. The influences go well beyond Spam. Subsidized wheat from America poured into the country, displacing rice. Even Japan, the hated colonizer of the peninsula, introduced flavors into Korea -- such as the Choco Pie, popularized by the Japanese firm Morinaga. When the North Korean soldier rejects the Choco Pie in JSA, he is also rejecting South Korea's post-war collaboration with Japan.

North Korea, meanwhile, officially took its own path after the wars of the mid-20th century. It rejected integration into both the capitalist and communist economic systems. It eventually developed an ideology of self-reliance (even as it quietly accepted aid and subsidized imports from China and the Soviet Union). The trappings of communism gradually fell away, and North Korea emerged in the 1990s as an essentially nationalist state. Many South Koreans, particularly after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, romanticized their northern neighbor as somehow "purer," untainted by globalization and capitalism: a more authentic Korea.

But the collapse of the North Korean economy in the 1990s undermined the myth of North Korea as somehow a "purer" Korea. Foreign aid poured into the country. Private markets became an essential way for North Koreans to acquire food, and many foreign influences began to appear through this route. The first fast-food restaurants started up in Pyongyang, serving fried chicken and even hamburgers, albeit labeled "minced beef and bread." At the very top of the leadership, Kim Jong Il's tastes in foreign food are legendary -- he brought over a Japanese sushi chef to cook for him and an Italian pizza maker to teach his chefs how to make the Italian pies.

So, the confrontation between the globalized South (Choco Pie) and the nationalist North (cold noodles) has become considerably blurred. Thanks to North Koreans, for instance, you can get authentic Pyongyang-style cold noodles today in South Korea. When North Korean defectors arrive in the South, where about 16,000 now live, they bring little in the way of marketable skills -- except for the cold noodle recipe of their mother or grandmother. North Koreans have opened cold-noodle restaurants all over South Korea. But in a sign of how much the two cultures have changed over the last 60 years, the owners of these cold noodle restaurants adjust their "authentic" recipe to meet the tastes of South Koreans.

And Choco Pies? They, too, have crossed the border. At the Kaesong Industrial Complex, South Korean managers and North Korean workers produce watches and kitchenware in factories just north of the DMZ. The North Korean workers receive several Choco Pies as part of their wages. These symbols of the decadent South are popular not only with the workers and their families. A new retail market in Choco Pies has also emerged in the North.

In other words, it's no longer Choco Pies versus cold noodles. As the two Koreas continue their slow-motion reunification -- despite occasional naval confrontations, exchanges of hostile rhetoric, and hiccups in economic relations -- a new future for the peninsula is emerging: Choco Pies and cold noodles.

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