Korean Artist Uses Chocolate Snack as Tool for Political Expression

VIDEO: Jin Joo Chae uses Choco Pie snack cakes in her artistic commentary about North Korea.
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In one of the only areas where North and South Koreans co-exist, the differences in political philosophies emerge each payday.

Kaesong is an industrial complex of factories just north of the de-militarized zone where workers arrive from both North and South Korea. But being from a communist country, North Korean workers are reminded that capitalism is frowned upon. And to that extent, after receiving their meager wages, any additional bonuses come in the form of food, not money.

That was how a chocolate, moonpie-like confection called Choco Pie became an unofficial currency of sorts. Jin Joo Chae, a Korean artist currently living in New York, discovered that the snack was being offered as payment to North Korean factory workers, in lieu of cash bonuses.

Chae was born and raised in South Korea, just in the shadow of communist North Korea, but far enough away to be complacent about the struggles there. "When I was in Korea, I was indifferent to many Korean current issues," Chae said.

In a country where it's estimated more than one third of the population is malnourished, the Choco Pie represents that much more income for North Korean workers -- income earned by re-selling the coveted snack for three or four times its face value.

"When they sell a Choco Pie on the black market, they could have $10 and it's worth like 100 grams of rice," Chae said.

That unexpected life of the Choco Pie inspired Chae to use it as a tool for political expression. She melted down the chocolate and used it to screen-print images in the likeness of Coca-Cola logos, in a nod to Western influence and capitalism. Regarding her medium, Chae noted, "The chocolate is really luscious ... but repressive at the same time."

Her canvas? North Korean newspapers. A move that would easily get her arrested if she were in North Korea.

In an interactive piece titled "Desire Want Need," viewers are encouraged to take a Choco Pie and leave money for its perceived value. The daily average is then recorded and displayed on an electronic ticker.

For visitors, it's a tiny window into a mysterious and complex country. For Chae, raising awareness is a personal responsibility to her Korean brethren in the North. "Giving attention to North Korean people is one of the ways we can help," she said.

"The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea" is on display at the Julie Meneret Contemporary Art gallery in New York City through Feb. 23.

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