[Feature] South Korea’s dog meat clash

Posted on : 2012-07-14 13:33 KST Modified on : 2012-07-14 13:33 KST
Animals rights groups and farmers are set to go head to head on the most divisive culinary question
"A country that eats dog? NO!" at a ceremony announcing Park Geun-hye‘s declaration for the presidential candidacy

By Nam Jong-young, staff writer

Perspectives on the eating of dog meat in South Korea are changing as calls for animal protection reach the political establishment. During last year's Seoul mayoral election, candidates Park Won-soon and Na Kyung-won both answered the calls of animal protection groups with animal policy pledges. Around ten candidates in this past April's general election sent responses to animal rights groups asking about similar pledges. The Green Party signed right to life and animal protection policy agreements with three major animal rights groups.

And then there was the unfamiliar sight at a ceremony July 10 in Seoul to announce New Frontier Party lawmaker Park Geun-hye's bid for the presidency. A young woman there was holding up a banner with big red letters reading, "A country that eats dog? NO!"

Less than a decade ago, the debate in South Korea over eating dog usually ended up fanning aggressive nationalism without any serious discussion of animal dignity. The eating of dog meat was then considered an indicator of national consciousness in South Koreans of all political persuasions.

Before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the pro-American military government drove dog meat restaurant out of downtown Seoul. In 2002, Korean netizens attacked American broadcaster NBC, when Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, made a joke about dog meat and Korean culture.

So what changed? To begin with, there are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 dog farms in South Korea. If each of them has 500 animals, then this means around five million of them are alive today, the Korea Dog Farmers' Association (KDFA) estimates. This is not a precise figure. The government does not monitor dog farming because the animals are not considered livestock.

Animal rights groups began taking on members in droves around the mid-2000s. Paid membership at one of them grew to rival the country's most noted environmental groups. Animal rights campaigning has been the fastest growing civic movement in recent years.

"A lot of it had to do with the 'Jangsu hell for dogs' incident that shook society up in 2006," said Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE) president Park So-youn. "It showed people a stark portrait of how the dog meat they eat is made."

The incident in question took place in the Jangsu neighborhood of Incheon. A dog farmer there was found to have left his animals to starve to death in order to collect compensation from the city’s redevelopment project. Pictures of the dogs' corpses, their bodies twisted by starvation, spread rapidly over the internet, and membership in animal rights groups swelled.

South Korea may be a modern nation today, but pre-modern instances of animal abuse occur regularly in the treatment of dogs. Some quarters have begun arguing that the cultural relativist defense of dog eating is merely a "description" of a culture's characteristics, not an absolute moral basis for determining right and wrong - just as the preference for male children or the stoning of adulterous Muslim women cannot be justified in the name of cultural relativism.

Park Chang-kil, professor at Sungkonghoe University and president of Voice4Animals, said that advocacy of the right to life, including animal protections, is overtaking the moral relativist position all around the world. "You can see it in the way Spanish bullfighting and foie gras have gone away," he said. "Fox hunting was a centuries-old tradition in Britain, and now it's banned by law."

In Spain, the Catalan Parliament banned bullfighting last year, and in California the force-feeding of geese and sale of foie gras was prohibited from July 1.

Korean animal rights groups asked for a ban on dog meat to be written into the Animal Protection Act, but were out of the picture when the act was amended last year. They had decided to focus more on awareness campaigns than on legal bans.

Park Chang-kil noted that the bans on foie gras and fox hunting only met with a public consensus after a long debate. "It's very tough for a minority to change things armed with nothing more than moral imperatives," he said.

Park So-youn suggested it might be worth considering a ban on dog eating with a twenty-year grace period. Meanwhile, dog farm owners responded with the 2008 establishment of the KDFA in an organized attempt to have dog meat legalized. With a membership of 500 actively campaigning dog farmers alone, the association aspired to large-scale livestock farming along the lines of cattle and pig raising. They have been working to breed the animals to produce more meat, prescribing various medications and injections, and fattening the dogs up in a short period of time before sending them for slaughter - a kind of "factory farming" approach. KDFA secretary-general Choi Young-in said,

KDFA secretary-general Choi Young-in said, "For good dog meat, you should have little grease and fat. Large-scale farms usually use Tosa mix, crossbred Japanese Tosa with mutts like Nureongi (a Korean yellow dog raised for food).” On large-scale farms, one dog fits into one square meter of space. The dogs spend their one-year lives here and are sold for meat. In the small farms that account for most dog farms, they fit three or four in here.

Because of this, there are also many who counter argue that dogs are unfit for factory-style stock-raising. CARE president Park So-youn said, "Because dogs are animals that run around, they become stressed when kept in a narrow cage, and they bite each other to death…On the truck that takes them to the slaughter house, several dogs are crammed into a single cage. To preserve the tenderness of their meat, they aren’t given any room to move.”

 July 10.
July 10.

It was July 12, at a residential area near Gyeongdong Market in Seoul's Jegi neighborhood. One man, who declined to be named, agreed to an interview after slaughtering a dog.

He said there are eight places that slaughter dogs like this in the Cheongnyangri residential area alone. Dogs are sent from Yeonggwang, Jeolla province and Daegu; he receives a 10,000-20,000 won slaughtering fee per dog and the meat is sent to a restaurant in nearby Gyeongdong Market.

The dog whose life was just brought to an end was a one-year-old Jindo Mix (a Jindo dog mixed with Nureungi), which after Tosa Mixes are the most common dogs raised for meat. The dog, sent alive from Yeonggwang, had been electrocuted several minutes earlier. After being placed in 60-degree water and having its hair removed in a machine, it had become 18kg of meat. The man said when you purchase dogs directly from dog farms, you can buy the meat for 4,800 won per 600g and sell it to restaurants for 7,000 won.

When he opened the refrigerator, the bodies of eight dogs were crammed inside. Four of the dogs were greyhounds, a kind of race dog. CARE president Park So-youn said, "On one hand, pet auctions are taking place, but the dogs that remain are being sold for meat … Even if the government registers dog meat as a livestock product and manages it, it's impossible to distinguish between pet dogs and food dogs in the distribution process."

Several dogs are crammed into a cage on a truck taking them to a slaughter house. In order to preserve the tenderness of their meat
Several dogs are crammed into a cage on a truck taking them to a slaughter house. In order to preserve the tenderness of their meat

"Park, Park, wherever you may be,

you eat dogs in your home country!

It could be worse, you could be a Scouse.

Eating rats in your council house!"

At one time, a line mocking dog meat was in the fans' cheer for footballer Park Ji-sung of English Premier League side Manchester United. In the second decade of the 21st century, however, Korean netizens no longer react sensitively to Westerners' critical comments about dog meat. This could be an expression of confidence resulting from Korea's increased national prestige, or it could be a reflection of "submissive nationalism," where one cannot say anything about the big-name European football side that selected Park.

Now people know how to take a joke as a joke and accept complex social and cultural points of view in which you yourself could become an object of mockery.

The modern and premodern coexist within the issue of dog meat, but at least the way people look at the issue is changing.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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