Friend or Food? South Korea's Cruel Dog Meat Trade

by Rosalyn Morrison

The two years I spent teaching English in South Korea proved to be a wonderful and enriching experience. I met many warmhearted and generous people who were only too willing to help a naïve American learn the social conventions—at least enough to get by in such an unfamiliar cultural landscape. (Before taking the job, I had never set foot in South Korea.)

Nevertheless, there is one vision of South Korea that left me deeply shaken—and that is the abominable way in which dogs in that country are treated. Every country has its own unique perspective on the relationship between humans and animals. It is all too easy to dismiss the practices of others as illogical or abhorrent. For the typical Westerner, eating dogs certainly qualifies as one of those practices we find strange and unsettling.

However, cultural biases aside, there is no getting around the fact that many dogs are treated miserably in South Korea. The manner in which a vast number of them are killed for food should shock the conscience of all—not just those offended by the idea of treating man’s best friend as food.

Before I left for South Korea, many friends and family members asked if I was going to Korea to eat dog meat. Laughing it off, I figured that it was a myth that dogs were still frequently eaten in one of the most developed countries in the world. To my dismay, once I got there I quickly discovered that this was indeed not a myth. Every year, according to International Aid for Korean Animals (IAKA), a non-profit organization founded by South Korean native Kyenan Kum (now living in the United States), 2 million dogs are killed for food—often in an extremely brutal manner and for dubious health benefits.

South Korea has grown exponentially in the past half-century from an impoverished nation to one with a high-tech industrialized economy. South Korea in the 1950s was a poor, rural country severely damaged by the aftermath of the Korean War and 36 years of Japanese occupation. The annual per capita income was $79, and the country critically depended on foreign aid. Often referred to as a miracle country, few expected South Korea to achieve what it has today.

Despite this phenomenal growth, for many years South Korea remained a homogeneous society with relatively little attention from and interaction with the outside world. Even today, with an almost nonexistent tourism industry, South Korea often feels like the underdog in relation to its more globally connected neighbors, China and Japan. A highly uniform society can have pros and cons, and one of the biggest cons in South Korea is an obsession many still have with “pure” blood. It remains extremely rare to see a Korean with a “waegookin,” or foreigner, as a partner. This obsession extends, unfortunately, to dogs as well—as evidenced by the near-universal disdain for mixed-breed dogs.

Purebred dogs, on the other hand, are highly sought after, particularly small dogs such as Toy Poodles, Pomeranians, and Yorkshire Terriers. Many Koreans treat these dogs as fashion objects. A high-priced dog is a status symbol—something to flash around your friends to show you can afford to indulge in such glitzy “objects.” On the downside, these toy dogs quite often are treated as mere commodities—to be quickly disposed of once they are no longer seen as cute and luxurious. In fact, South Korea has a severe abandonment problem. Former pets roam the streets, often still wearing frivolous sweaters, their cheeks painted as pink as a Chanel blush, their tails tinted green.

But these dogs have it easy compared to dogs of mixed breed. Dogs of uncertain pedigree are referred to as “dong-gae”—which literally means “dung dog.” They never stand a chance of living even a temporarily pampered life as do the small purebreds. When driving or walking around Jeollanam-do, the rural countryside region where I lived during my first year in South Korea, I often saw dog meat farms consisting of rusty, brown cages stacked on top of each other, filled with big yellow dogs. Akin to the gruesome manner in which pigs and chickens are raised for meat in factory farms, dogs raised for meat exist under extremely cruel and uncomfortable living conditions. These innocent dogs never feel the grass underneath their paws until the time comes when they are dragged out of a cage to meet their grim destiny. The dogs are often butchered right in front of the others.

Many South Koreans would like outsiders to believe that the yellow mixed dogs are the only dogs eaten as dog meat. This is not so. In truth, once “beloved” pets turn into a nuisance and a dent in the owners’ wallet, they often are unceremoniously disposed of in the streets, to be picked up by the dog collector, thrown into small wire cages with three or four other dogs, and driven to Moran market—the largest dog meat market in the nation.

Korean law is fuzzy on the legality of the dog meat trade. According to the Korean non-profit, Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA), “It is technically illegal to process dogs like livestock and use dog meat as any kind of food product. However, it is not illegal to breed, or raise, or slaughter dogs for dog meat.” In addition, South Korea’s Animal Protection Act—which should be used to penalize animal abusers—isn’t enforced, despite being recently revised with stronger penalties. With no substantive restrictions to curb the sale of dog meat, it is sold in restaurants throughout the country. The government estimated over a dozen years ago that well over 20,000 restaurants—counting those that were unregistered—offered dog meat.

Most horrifically, there is a widely held belief that in order to produce tender meat, dogs should have high adrenaline levels right before they die. To achieve this, dogs are sadistically made to experience extreme fear and suffering in the lead up to their deaths. Dogs are commonly killed via bludgeoning, hanging or electrocution. Some dogs are hung and then beaten while they are still alive. Others are hung and then a blow torch is used on them while they are still alive to remove their hair. At the open-air markets, dogs are electrocuted and then their necks are broken—all in plain sight of nearby pedestrians.

Why dog meat? It turns out, the attraction is not just a matter of taste or availability. IAKA’s website says that, “Even during desperate times... the consumption of dog was not a dietary tradition. Like anywhere else, dog was eaten only as a last-ditch resort to avoid starvation. Then sometime in the last century the practice was taken up by a few older men for mythical health benefits regarding virility.”

Consumption of dog meat also increases during Korea's scorching hot summers, as there is a belief that eating dog will keep one cool. I often saw chained or caged mixed dogs whom I had befriended disappear in July, coinciding with Bok days, the three hottest days of the summer according to the lunar calendar.

In 2002, the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup was hosted by South Korea - provoking fresh international scrutiny over South Korea’s dog meat industry. Ahead of the competition, FIFA’s president, Joseph Blatter, called upon the organization’s vice president, Dr. Chung Mong-Joon of Korea, to take "immediate and decisive measures to put an immediate end to this cruelty." In an open letter to Dr. Chung, Blatter said the dog trade damaged South Korea's international image and that the World Cup was an "appropriate moment for Korea to show the world that it is sensitive to vociferous worldwide public opinion and that it rejects cruelty." In addition, a coalition of animal welfare and conservation groups from 12 Asian countries asked the South Korean Government to make a clear commitment during the World Cup to enforce and improve animal protection and to permanently put an end to the dog meat industry. A joint investigation was set up by government officials to try to create a better system to prevent animal abuse. However, a number of Korean officials and politicians support dog eating and have no interest in changing the system. Not surprisingly, little came of the investigation.

In January 2005, according to KARA, local animal protection groups discovered that the Office for Government Policy Coordination (OGC) under the prime minister had been covertly studying a new policy on how the government could regulate dog meat. Perceiving this as a move to sanction the cruel practice instead of eradicating it or even truly reforming it, the groups began a campaign to prevent the government from pursuing this policy. Later that same month, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told all groups to stop sending petitions because the OGC was not going to pursue its proposed “dog meat sanitation” management policy any further.

And yet, on March 9 of that year—in a complete reversal of what local animal protection groups were told - the prime minister announced a new dog meat sanitation management policy, intended to regulate the sale of dog meat in South Korea. However, according to Kyenan Kum, the plan was not carried out due to renewed international uproar.

Meanwhile the controversy continues. Fortunately, there are a number of animal welfare groups working diligently to end the dog meat trade in South Korea, in addition to IAKA and KARA. For many years, these organizations have been campaigning to build awareness of the atrocities associated with the dog meat trade, as well as aiding private shelters in South Korea by donating food and funding for development projects and advocating for the implementation of stronger laws and penalties against the abandonment of pets.

Another point of encouragement is that younger Koreans tend to shy away from eating dog meat, due in part to the influence from the wider world regarding dogs’ roles as companions in society and not as food. Meanwhile, South Korea has been chosen to host the Winter Olympics in 2018. Many Korean animal advocates see this as an opportunity to once again focus international light on the practice—and in so doing finally bring an end to the deplorable dog meat trade.