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[ICONIC FOOD] Choco Pies are all about sharing, in the military or out of it

Oct 08,2018
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Top: President Moon Jae-in, center, cuts a gigantic chocolate pie similar to a Choco Pie on Armed Forces Day on Oct. 1 with other high-level armed forces officers. Choco Pie is one of the most beloved and widely-available snacks among Korean soldiers.
When Korean President Moon Jae-in and other high-military officials celebrated the Armed Forces Day of Korea on Oct. 1, their dessert served as a symbolic choice. They cut a gigantic Choco Pie-shaped cake as a tribute to how much the snack means to Korean soldiers.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that every single Korean has tasted Choco Pie, a chocolate snack first introduced in Korea in 1974 by the Orion company. While there are a number of companies that make chocolate sandwiches with marshmallows inside, Orion was the first. It began struggling with other competition from brands like Lotte, though. Orion also lost a trademark lawsuit over the use of the term "Choco Pie."

In the 1990s, Orion bounced back with a marketing campaign themed around “jeong," a Korean word that means friendship, love or care. The word was chosen to promote the idea of “sharing” a box of 12 chocolate snacks with loved ones, so that the Choco Pie will come to mind as the first dessert choice for a big group of people.

The Choco Pie was the snack of choice for workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. It is also a perfect substitute for any celebratory cake after midnight when all bakeries are closed as it is available at convenience stores around the clock. Some people even make birthday cakes out of Choco Pies by making a pile of the dessert and placing a candle on top.

The snack has also become an inspiration for artists. A piece by Chun Min Jung at the 2018 Busan Biennale was made with 100,000 of the pies.

Visitors could freely take them and eat them on the spot as the artist wanted to share “jeong” with the audience through the artwork.

But the Choco Pie really becomes part of daily life for men doing their mandatory military service as part of Korea’s armed forces.

It is one of the only sweets that newly-enlisted soldiers get during their first few months of training. Many soldiers say that even people who didn't particularly like Choco Pies would look for them as there aren't many other opportunities to eat something sweet. Even after training is done, some soldiers adopt new religions at their military bases to get more Choco Pies, as soldiers are offered a free Choco Pie after a religious service.

Some celebrities have shared photos of themselves eating a Choco Pie on their first day of enlistment before starting their training to represent their transition to military life.

Such photos of Korean celebrities have led the snack to become popular outside of its home. Global fans as well as Koreans all across the world spread word about the snack. In Russia, Orion sells about 700 million boxes of Choco Pies every year, and sales have increased by about 20 percent over the past five years.

Orion has sold a total of 25 billion boxes of Choco Pies as of last year. Behind the scenes, the company makes slight adjustments to the texture and flavor to keep up with the changing taste of its consumers.

While newer, flashier and more Instagram-ready desserts have been released since the Choco Pie debuted in 1974, a simple box of the snack is still a comforting sight. The twelve Choco Pies found in one box are enough to fill up a few peoples' stomachs in case of an emergency. It's a shareable delight that has satisfied generations of Koreans, especially soldiers.

But the sweet snack hasn't stopped receiving upgrades. The company has opened several Choco Pie House outlets at major department stores to introduce more premium pies that costs about 2,000 to 3,000 won ($1.77 to $2.66) a piece. They feature injeolmi, a traditional Korean rice cake, or seasonal fruits like figs. The Korean soldier's favorite snack, despite its humble beginnings, is heading upmarket.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]