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International relations

Choco Pie points the way for diplomacy with South Korea

Treat symbolizes a humane concept that resonates as well as complicates

A Choco Pie from South Korea. The character for "jeong" is on the right.

SEOUL -- What's the most popular snack in South Korea? The answer is without a doubt Choco Pie "jeong," a chocolate-covered, marshmallow-filled round cake made by Orion. But the beloved confection is more than just sweet and tasty -- it's a symbol for one of the main features of Korean society. 

In 2016, the product chalked up a record 480 billion won ($444 million) in sales around the world. If the 2.3 billion Choco Pies sold that year were stacked on top of each other, they would circle the globe more than three and a half times. Every South Korean has a story or two about the popular treat.

Choco Pie became a household name in South Korea thanks largely to the word jeong printed in large characters on the red package. "We used the concept of 'jeong,' which resides in South Korean DNA, and positioned the product as something people can enjoy sharing with one another," an Orion representative said. "That's how it became so successful."

Along with han, which roughly means resentment or grudge, jeong is an important concept for understanding the South Korean psyche. Kizo Ogura, a professor at Kyoto University, explains it in his book "Kokoro de shiru Kankoku" (Learning about South Korea through the Heart).

It is, he says, a feeling of humane kindness that arises in horizontal (peer) relationships between people, although it can also arise in vertical relationships between people of different ranks. In a highly competitive, hierarchical society, those who are on a similar footing forge strong bonds and offer each other this kindness, Ogura explained.

However, jeong can be a double-edged sword, and it can even transcend diplomatic agreements.

Last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that "the majority of [South Koreans] cannot emotionally accept the comfort women agreement," referring to the deal struck between Abe and Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, in 2015 that was supposed to put an end to the dispute.

The issue of wartime comfort women came to a turning point in 2011, when the Constitutional Court of Korea said the government's decision not to engage in negotiations with Japan infringed on the women's human rights and was therefore unconstitutional. With public sentiment firmly behind the women, nurtured by activist groups, "Moon will lose his political standing at home if he defends Japan [and not the women]," said a professor close to the president.

Moon has been trying to open dialogue with North Korea in part because of his jeong toward people living across the border, who share the same roots.

Former North Korean defectors living in South Korea release balloons containing Choco Pies near the Demilitarized Zone in 2012.   © Reuters

In a scene in "JSA," a hit 2000 film in South Korea, a North Korean soldier is depicted eating a Choco Pie at the Joint Security Area between the countries. A South Korean soldier tells him: "If you flee to the South, you can eat it as much as you want," coaxing him to defect.

Seventeen years later, it almost became a reality. In November 2017, a North Korean soldier risked his life crossing the border into the South at the JSA in Panmunjom. After he was transferred to a regular bed at a hospital, the soldier reportedly said, "I want to eat a Choco Pie."

For South Koreans, jeong also leads to pragmatism. Despite the neighbors' dark history, Japan is a popular holiday destination for Koreans. Budget airlines are bringing more and more college students to Japan. By contrast, the Japanese take a more or less one-track approach. "The idea that a state-level dispute prevents [Japanese people] from visiting South Korea on holiday probably does not make sense to South Koreans," said Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Keio University.

Dealing with a country driven by emotion is tricky. In his policy speech at parliament last month, Abe talked far less about South Korea than China or Russia. But emotions do not just disappear if left alone. Often, they grow. One might say South Korea and Japan need to understand each other's sentiment. They need to connect and be straight with each other about their national interests.

In January 1983, when the bilateral relationship was at its worst due to a row over Japan's history textbooks, then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited South Korea on his first foreign trip since taking office. At a banquet, he made a speech in Korean, and later sang a Korean song at a party. After that, the relationship started to improve.

Nakasone also built personal ties with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Hiromu Nonaka, a former Japanese chief cabinet secretary who died in January, once said, "Talks over relations with China and the Korean Peninsula must be led by government leaders."

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