Korea still conflicted over its custom of dining on dogs

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Korea still conflicted over its custom of dining on dogs


Nearly a dozen dogs are kept in a cage in Seongnam’s Moran Market in Gyeonggi on Saturday. By Kang Jin-kyu

Mrs. Kim, a 66-year-old housewife, has come to the Moran Market in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, to do some shopping for a family banquet that evening to commemorate the anniversary of her mother’s death. She’s a fussy shopper.

After looking at countless cages outside nearly 30 seemingly identical shops, she finds her choice. “This one looks healthy,” she tells a market attendant. “I’ll take him.”

The attendant reaches into the cage and pulls out a very frightened, medium-sized dog with yellowish fur. He grabs a custom-made pole connected to an electrical wire and puts the tip inside the shivering dog’s mouth. He flicks a switch.

Without a yelp, the dog squeezes its eyes shut and slumps to the pavement. Mrs. Kim watches while sipping a cup of coffee offered by the shop’s owner.

“I came here today to buy dog meat for an anniversary ritual to mark the passing of my mother,” she tells the Korea JoongAng Daily. “My family loves dog meat and insists on having it for special occasions.”

The dead dog is hoisted to the rear of the shop to have its fur burned off with a torch for slaughtering. Mrs. Kim follows to make sure she’s getting what she paid 200,000 won ($184) for. As the butcher cuts the dog up into two dozen pieces, she banters with him.

“I surely picked the right one, didn’t I?” she asks.

“Of course ma’am,” says the butcher.

“I have eaten dog meat for over 30 years and I can tell you it is the best,” Mrs. Kim continues. “Dogs that are older than 1 year old are particularly good. Younger dogs are not as tasty.”

But when Mrs. Kim saw her purchase slump dead onto the pavement after being electrified, she looked at the dog, shook her head and said to it in a low voice: “I am sorry that I chose you.”

Conflicted over the custom

Even though the practice is shared by a number of other countries including China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Koreans are known as the world’s dog eaters, probably because the custom is so mainstream.

Koreans inherited from the Chinese the notion that dog is a “cooling” food, so sweltering summer days are literally dog days as Koreans line up at restaurants serving dog meat soup. There’s a macho element to the custom: Middle-aged office bosses love dragging reluctant young female staffers to their favorite dog restaurants.

As Mrs. Kim demonstrates, there’s a genuine taste for the meat, which connoisseurs say is similar to lean beef or goat.

The custom has survived Korea’s escape from poverty and high prices: Dog meat costs twice as much as chicken. According to a study commissioned by the National Assembly in 2006, dog is the fourth most commonly consumed meat following pork, chicken and beef.

But Mrs. Kim’s muttered apology to her future dinner also demonstrates the ambivalence Korea has to the custom, especially with the rise of the country’s own love affair with pet dogs. Its conflict is particularly acute when the outside world threatens to disapprove.

Ahead of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the military junta of Chun Doo Hwan drove dog restaurants out of central Seoul in fear that the international press would publicize them and embarrass the nation.

In 2001, French actress-turned-animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot launched a campaign against the dog-eating culture in Korea ahead of the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup. A heated debate between Bardot and Korean radio host Sohn Suk-hee on a radio program, in which Sohn cited cultural relativism in defending the custom, became the talk of the town.

More recently, a photo posted on Twitter in July of dogs crammed in cages on a ship bound from Jeju Island to dog-meat markets on the mainland prompted a public outcry online about how backward Korea is on the issue of animal rights. YouTube has video clips of dogs being boiled in water at a slaughter house.

In fact, it’s this schizophrenic attitude that has kept the dog eating industry in a legal gray area that, some people assert, ends up encouraging cruel practices. In 1984, the Seoul city government classified dog meat as “repugnant food,” but it never took the ban seriously except around the time of the Olympics. The country’s Food Sanitation Act applies to dog meat, but its Livestock Industry Act doesn’t cover dog farming so there are no regulations on living conditions for the animals or methods of slaughter as there are for livestock such as cows and pigs.

People in the business say dogs should be recognized as livestock and regulated like other animals and the abuses will stop. Animal rights groups in Korea and abroad can’t accept that.

“There are an estimated 10 million households that raise pets in this country,” Park So-yeon, director of the animal rights group Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (better known as CARE, its acronym), told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Nowhere on earth is this conflict of values toward dogs as striking as here in Korea.” Park says it’s time Korea turned its back on peasant habits like eating dogs and totally reject the argument that legalizing the business would allow regulation and lead to a diminution of abuse of dogs.

The director, who founded the animal-rights group in 2002, says legitimate dog farming would result in mass production of dog meat, which would “certainly further deteriorate living conditions of dogs in farmhouses.”

The government has taken a whack at the problem, but it was a decade ago and everybody in the discussion agreed that a solution wasn’t possible.

“The Prime Minister’s Office led talks involving related government offices such as the ministries of welfare, environment and agriculture to formerly determine whether the dog-meat industry should be a legitimate business in 2002,” said Jung Ji-won, an official at the preventive measures department of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“But with high-stake conflicts of interest among different ministries, they failed to reach an agreement on dog meat.”

In other words, the edible dog industry in Korea - farming the animals, slaughtering them, cooking and eating them - isn’t legal. But it isn’t illegal either. And that’s the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.

(The second and final part of this story appears tomorrow.)

By Kang Jin-kyu [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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