In South Korea right now cats and dogs have a tormented existence and a painful drawn out death. After the Korean War of 1950-50 South Korea became something of an economic miracle, transforming itself into a highly sophisticated and technologically developed nation. However this modernity and progress has not been matched in its attitudes to animals and animal welfare. Although many in the general population are now pet owners animal welfare is still a low priority and the welfare laws recently created in 2007 are not enforced.
The consumption of dog and cat meat in Korea can by traced back to ancient times archeologically. It is not on the other hand ‘traditional’ in the way that pro dog meat people describe it but was something practiced when food was scarce – it became widespread during the war and has developed on from that in recent times. Dramatic distortions of Korean culture have promoted all kinds of new animal products in Korea based on unchecked exploitation of Korea’s animals and environment. As in China, popular and expensive so-called “herbal” medicines are made from parts of bears, deer, tigers, rhinoceroses, and other animals.
In South Korea dog meat is eaten nationwide and all year round but during summer it is mistakenly believed to balance body temperature and “ki” (vital energy) and also increase virility and strength. Cats are touted as the source of medicinal tonics and fraudulent cures for ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis. ‘Dog meat’ in Korean is literally ‘gaegogi’ (개고기) often used mistakenly for Korean dog meat soup, which is actually called ‘bosintang’ (보신탕; 補身湯). According to the National Assembly of South Korea, more than 20,000 restaurants, including the 6484 registered restaurants, served soups made from dog meat in Korea in 1998.
At the end of their brief and miserable lives, farmers and butchers kill in the most horrific fashion with impunity: dogs are murdered with high-voltage electrocution, not dying immediately, are hanged, beaten to death, and frequently have their throats slashed. They are killed within sight of their doomed cage mates, thrown into a tub of boiling water, then into a rotating drum for the removal of their fur, and finally blowtorched, often while still alive. Cats are bludgeoned and thrown into boiling water while conscious. Many have their legs broken so they can’t escape, and are skinned alive. Unlike dogs, cats are not farmed for their meat, but are stolen, surrendered, or picked up as strays. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the nightmarish fiction, fueled solely by profit, that the more suffering endured during slaughter, the more tender the meat and more potent the so-called medicinal properties.
In 1999 the BBC reported that 8,500 tons of dog meat were consumed annually, with another 93,600 tons used to produce a medicinal tonic called gaesoju (개소주). Millions of dogs and thousands of cats are slaughtered each year and consumed as meat or in the form of tonics for their purported health benefits. These benefits, such as increased “virility” and “vitality,” have been shown scientifically to be nonexistent.
A Legal No Mans Land
Although they are raised, slaughtered, and consumed, dogs and cats are not classified as ‘livestock’ animals in South Korea. Technically they should be protected under the Korea Animal Protection Law, which was revised and strengthened in 2007 (effective Jan. 1, 2008). The new law is meant to reinforce the government’s responsibility toward animal protection, provide grounds for the enforcement of the animal registration system (which helps stem the tide of companion-animal abandonment and overpopulation), and help implement existing laws against animal abuse, among other aims. However, enforcing the law is difficult because of the lack of public interest in the issue and because of entrenched interests on the part of business and the government. Further, both before and after the new law took effect, local governments such as that of Seoul, the capital, have undermined the position of dogs and cats by seeking to establish hygiene standards for dog-meat restaurants. The government rationale is that, if people are eating dogs anyway, it makes sense for public health to make sure these restaurants are hygienic. But the worry is that such moves help establish dog meat as a food on an equal footing with any other and legitimise the eating of companion animals. In the capital city of Seoul, the sale of dog meat was effectively outlawed by regulation in 1984 classifying dog meat as ‘repugnant food’ (혐오식품). South Korean food law (식품위생법) does not include dog meat and as a ‘repugnant food’ (혐오식품)its use as an ingredient is not legal. However except during the 1988 Seoul Olympics this law has not been enforced. In 2001, the Mayor of Seoul announced there would be no extra enforcement efforts to control the sale of dog meat during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was partially hosted in Seoul. In March 2008, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its plan to put forward a policy suggestion to the central government to legally classify slaughter dogs as livestock, reigniting debate on the issue.
‘Daily North Korea’ reported that the North Korean government included dog meat in its new list of one hundred fixed prices, setting a fixed price of 500 won per kilogram in early 2010.
Like many Asian countries, Korea has not traditionally had quite the same concept of animal welfare as now tends to prevail in the West possibly since many Asian nations have not historically enjoyed a good general level of economic and political stability so that concerns over human survival have taken priority. Still, the idea of respect for the environment and for animals does have ancient roots in Korean culture. The Jindo breed, a spitz-type dog native to the island of the same name, is even cherished as a national symbol and designated by the government as an official “Natural Treasure.”Like people in many other cultures, Koreans have a fondness for dogs. So in order to assuage people’s discomfort with eating dogs and thereby allow the dog-meat trade to grow, those who profit from it have encouraged the creation of a spurious distinction between so-called “pet” dogs and those raised for meat. The meat of large, gentle yellow dogs is promoted as particularly healthful. It is also said that the more painful the dog’s death, the better the taste and the more potent the benefits, because of the adrenaline released in the dog’s system. Even with the supposed separation between ‘pet’ and ‘meat’ animals, however, the meat markets still deal in dogs of all breeds. Pugs, pointers, cocker spaniels, Jack Russell terriers, and various small, fluffy dogs have all been photographed in cages, for sale at meat markets. Although they were obviously bred to be companion animals, these dogs were probably lost or abandoned by their owners or kidnapped by exploiters.
Cats in particular have a difficult time of it in Korea. They are traditionally viewed with fear and suspicion, or at least with no particular affection. They are often considered a nuisance—deceptive, wily animals who carry disease. As such, bad treatment and outright abuse of cats can seem morally justifiable to people. The eradication of stray cat populations, according to is attempted not by humane methods, but rather by beating the animals to death in sacks or, in some case, boiling them alive in large pressure cookers to be made into tonics. There is a large and vocal number of Koreans from various welfare groups who are against the practice of eating dogs. Popular television shows like ‘I Love Pet’ in 2011 televised the continued illegal trade of dog meat and slaughtering of dogs in suburban areas as well as the illegal dog farms and slaughterhouses, showing the horrific conditions of caged dogs – visibly sick with severe infections and malnutrition. However, despite this growing awareness, many in Korea feel that it is a matter of personal choice. There is a vocal group of pro-dog eating people who want to popularise the consumption of dog in Korea and the rest of the world – attempting to promote and publicise the consumption of dog meat worldwide during the run-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which prompted retaliation from animal rights campaigners and prominent figures such as Brigitte Bardot to denounce the practice.
Animal Welfare Activism in South Korea
There are few animal welfare organizations or animal shelters in South Korea, but those that do exist are working hard to educate the public. IAKA makes efforts to teach people, particularly schoolchildren, about the cruelty of the dog-meat and animal-medicine trades. They also spread the message that cats are friendly, clean animals who make great pets, especially for urban and apartment dwellers. Another way in which IAKA advocates for animals is through its sister organization, the Seoul-based Korea Animal Protection and Education Society (KAPES), which is educating the public on adoption, the need to spay and neuter companion animals, and proper pet care practices. KAPES is only the third such organization officially registered in Korea. It is campaigning to raise enough money to build an adoption and education center in Seoul that would be one of the first of its kind. California-based In Defense of Animals (IDA) works with its allies in South Korea to educate the public, stage protests, rescue dogs from abusive conditions on dog “farms,” and urge the government to enforce existing animal protection laws. The grassroots organization Animal Rescue Korea (ARK) is an online community started by a Canadian animal lover who was living in Korea and teaching English. ARK now provides many online resources for Koreans and foreigners living in Korea who want to improve the welfare of animals: discussion forums, animal fostering, listings of adoptable animals, and articles on animal care and related topics. The Korean Animal Protection Society (KAPS) advocates against the raising, slaughtering, and consumption of dogs and has lobbied governmental bodies against the promotion of the practice. It also runs two sanctuaries for rescued animals and an adoption shelter.
Active Korean Animal Welfare Groups
The efforts of all these organisations in establishing a Korean animal welfare movement are admirable. It is to be hoped that their work in humane education with the people of South Korea will promote greater compassion for animals, a wider understanding of the needs of companion animals, and an end to the demand for dog meat and animal-based medicine.
Addresses for Protest Letters
Please send letters to the South Korean ambassador, the President of South Korea, and the Secretary General of the United Nations urging South Korea to stop killing dogs for human consumption. A paper version as well as an email is best as emails can be filtered out.
Honorable Ambassador Choi Young-jin Embassy of the Republic of Korea 2450 Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20008 TEL: 202-939-5600 FAX: 202-797-0595
His Excellency President Lee Myong-bak 1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu Seoul 110-820 Republic of Korea
The Honorable Ban Ki-Moon Secretary General 760 United Nations Plaza United Nations New York, NY 10017