Dog meat shopkeepers carry on despite declining popularity

Posted on : 2017-10-16 16:41 KST Modified on : 2017-10-16 16:41 KST
Korean-Chinese account for 30-40% of total consumption
A dog meat shop in Gyeongdong Market in the Dongdaemun district of Seoul. (provided by Korean Animal Welfare Association)
A dog meat shop in Gyeongdong Market in the Dongdaemun district of Seoul. (provided by Korean Animal Welfare Association)

“When a customer comes in and asks for fresh dog meat, we all know what’s going on. You can’t see it, but there’s [a slaughterhouse] inside.”

That was the explanation provided by the owner of a dog meat shop who spoke with the Hankyoreh at Moran Market (which is the biggest dog meat market in the country) in the Jungwon District of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on the morning of July 22 – the second of South Korea’s three “dog days.” As he had indicated, there was a constant whining from dogs just inside the entrance. In one shop, there were four or five dogs in a huge cage, eyeing the area nervously. On a shelf three meters from the dogs, a dead white dog was lying on its side with its posterior showing. The only thing between the living dogs and the dead one was a white tube perforated with round holes.

Half of the dead white dog’s body had been scorched black. An employee who caught my eye waved his hand vigorously and told me to get going and stop poking around. According to a number of shopkeepers, the dogs are electrocuted to death and then dropped into hot water, over 60 degrees Celsius. Then they’re given a spin in the tube (a de-hairing machine) to remove their fur, and the remaining fur is burned off with a torch, completing the “job.”

Two of the 22 shops at Moran Market that I visited on Aug. 1 still had dogs on display that had not yet been butchered. Next to the front wall of these shops were red cages, in which five or six yellow dogs were lying on the floor, sprawled on top of each other. While dog farmers are raising dogs in remote areas to avoid complaints from locals, some dog meat shopkeepers have hung up red signs saying “no photographs allowed” in front of their shops to prevent those who are there not for business but out of curiosity from taking photos of the area. This is private property, and unauthorized behavior is not permitted.

The workday at the market begins early in the morning. One 57-year-old identified by the letter K, who has been a dog meat wholesaler at Seongnam for 13 years, said that he shows up at 3 am and finishes work at 3 pm. “Around 9 or 10 in the evening, after dog meat restaurants have finished serving for the day, they’ll call or text me to say whether or not they need any dogs. We have to deliver the dogs by about 9 in the morning so the restaurants can boil the meat and serve lunch,” said K, whose business is more than 90% wholesale. K brings the dogs to the shop the night before and finishes the “job” by the next morning.

Summer is the peak season for dog meat consumption in Korea

There are two major seasons for dog meat shopkeepers. There is the “dog season,” which begins in April with the advent of spring and lasts until the summer heat recedes in August. Aside from the peak season in the summer, the rest of the year is the off season, and the slowest time of year is the first month of the lunar calendar, when eating dog meat is considered taboo. In February, after the Lunar Year is over, business starts picking up again. But business has gradually been improving even during the off season, K says, because of the increasing number of Korean-Chinese living in South Korea.

“Between 30 and 40% of dog meat is eaten by Korean-Chinese. Since the Chinese eat dogs even on Chuseok, a lot of the dogs go to restaurants in Seongnam, the Guro neighborhood and Ttukseom,” K said, referring to neighborhoods that are frequented by Korean-Chinese.

K said that the business’s net earnings total 12 million won (US$10,630) per month, of which he and his wife take home about 2 million won (US$1,770). The wholesale price of the dog meat K sells to restaurants is 3,800-4,000 won (US$3.37-$3.55) per geun (about 600 grams), so he usually makes over 200,000 won ($177) per dog. In the past, he would sell an average of 70 dogs a day and 200 dogs on the second dog day, but lately the daily average is down to 20-30 dogs and about 60 dogs on the second dog day. Considering that K has a margin of 8%, this means the shop earns between 400,000 (US$355) and 500,000 (US$443) won a day on 5 million (US$4,430) and 6 million won (US$5,315) of sales, or about 12 million (US$10,630) won a month.

But once you subtract the labor costs – 4 million won (US$3,540) for K’s business partner, a younger brother; 3 million won (US$2,660) for a Korean-Chinese who slaughters the dogs, and an allowance for K’s son, who has been learning the family trade since completing his military service – and 2.2 million won (US$1,950) in rent for the shop, which measures 83 m2, K is only left with about 2 million won ($US1,770). With three grown children, K commutes from his country house, which is not in Seongnam.

“Since dog farmers aren’t very prosperous, they want to butcher the dogs themselves on the farm and then do business directly with restaurants. Most of these people are doing the work they’ve been doing because they’re not ready for retirement,” K said.

A Gyeongdong Market shopkeeper waits for customers in the Dongdaemun district of Seoul last April. (provided by Korean Animal Welfare Association)
A Gyeongdong Market shopkeeper waits for customers in the Dongdaemun district of Seoul last April. (provided by Korean Animal Welfare Association)
Dog meat prices have fallen in recent years due to declining popularity

Before opening his dog meat shop, K raised dogs himself at a farm for 17 years. After the tile retail shop he had managed previously went belly up, he had left Seongnam and gone to the countryside to recuperate. The dogs he was raising bred quickly, and he made decent money selling them, K recalled. “In our heyday, one geun (0.6Kg) of dog meat sold for 10,000 won (US$8.90), but now farmers are getting between 2,500 and 3,000 (US$2.22 and $2.66). [Farmers] need to make 3,500 won (US$3.10) just to break even,” he said.

Dog meat is not the only source of revenue at these shops in Seongnam. Some of them also sell traditional restoratives made with ingredients such as the meat of black goats. When the Jungwon District Office ordered two shops to close for 10 days at the end of Dec. 2016 because they had failed to check the quality of restoratives made with livestock other than dog (goats, for example), they chose to pay a fine of 800,000 (US$709) and 500,000 (US$443) instead of closing. The fines stipulated in the Food Sanitation Act are 800,000 won for businesses with between 20 million (US$17,730) and 30 million won (US$26,590) in annual sales and 500,000 won for businesses with less than 20 million won in annual sales. While these two shops don’t necessarily represent all the shops in Moran Market, they do offer a general picture of the sales of these restoratives.

The Korea Dog Farmers’ Association, which largely consists of these shopkeepers and their employees, says that what they’re asking for right now is for their livelihood to be guaranteed. Some of the shopkeepers also want low interest rate loans to help them “at least support the shops’ employees and their children.”

“You can’t buck the trend [of people no longer eating dog meat]. This business will last for five years more at the most,” said one shopkeeper, who is opposed to the city’s ban on displaying and slaughtering dogs at Moran Market, which is itself a symbol of the national dog meat industry. “If Seongnam will get rid of the green belt and allow us to build a theme park for pet dogs [there], I’m willing to quit [my shop] right away.”

By Choi Woo-ri, staff reporter

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