Dog meat: why is it a sensitive subject in South Korea?

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Dog breeders are served dog meat in Seoul during a rally in 2019

This is one of the most controversial questions a foreigner can ask in South Korea, although the reaction and answer often depends on the age of the person asked.

“It’s so tiring, I always have to point out that I’ve never eaten one. Dog dishes are mostly for older people in South Korea, but foreigners often generalize this practice,” explains Park Eun-kyoung, a consultant in her thirties currently working in Germany, who admits to finding the question sometimes offensive.

“It has a negative connotation, implying that Koreans eat something very inappropriate and that this culture is barbaric.”

But time to answer such questions appears to be running out: Earlier this week, the South Korean government passed a new law banning the breeding, slaughtering, distribution and sale of dogs for meat here 2027.

This will effectively end a centuries-old practice. Historically, cows were highly valued and, says Dr. Joo Young-ha, professor of anthropology at the Graduate School of Korean Studies, they were so prized that it was necessary to obtain a government permit to slaughter them until the end of the Nineteenth century.

Other sources of protein were therefore needed. For people on the Korean Peninsula, dog meat was one of the best options, enjoyed by all social classes, although there were always those who avoided it.

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One of the most famous dog meat dishes is a soup, called “bosintang”.

But like any other meat, popular dishes using this product have emerged, such as dog meat soup, called “bosintang”, and boiled dog meat slices. Talk to older South Koreans, and many still extol its virtues as an easy-to-digest and energy-boosting delicacy, especially during a hot summer.

So it came as a shock to many during the 1988 Seoul Olympics – at the time, the largest international event South Korea had ever hosted – when criticism of dog meat consumption began. the front pages of newspapers around the world.

“At first, many people, especially social elites, were angry, perceiving this as a lack of respect for other cultures. However, over time, more and more people felt shame and become more critical,” Dr Joo said.

More than three decades later, South Korea is a very different country, especially when it comes to the number of people who eat dog meat.

According to a Gallup poll last year, only 8% of people had tried dog meat in the past 12 months, a significant drop from 27% in 2015. The figures provided by the Korean Food Association Edible Dogs, an organization representing the industry, also points to a decline.

It says there are now about 3,000 dog breeding farms in South Korea, a significant decrease from 10,000 in the early 2010s, but also considerably higher than the government’s figure, which estimates that number at around 1,100.

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The number of Koreans owning pet dogs has increased in recent years

Meanwhile, pet ownership has increased. Data from a 2022 survey suggests that one in four South Koreans own a pet, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

In December, it was reported that sales of pet strollers had surpassed those of baby strollers for the first time last year, although this may be as much a reflection of South Korea’s declining birth rate than his love for animals.

And then there’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and First Lady Kim Keon Hee, both famous animal lovers, with six dogs and five cats.

It took this administration less than two years to pass a law that previous administrations had failed to enact since the idea was first mooted decades ago. The suggestion that it could be revised under Mr. Yoon’s predecessor was blocked amid heavy criticism.

This new law now means that, in three years, those involved in this trade will face fines or prison sentences if they continue their activities. However, it does not prohibit the consumption of dog meat.

Video caption,

Watch Seoul correspondent Jean Mackenzie’s report from one of the few places in the capital where you can still eat dog meat

It was nevertheless praised by activists, including Jo Hee Kyung, president of the Korea Animal Welfare Association (KAWA), who has campaigned on the issue since the late 1990s.

The ban was, she said, the “only option” to end dog abuse, adding: “I hope the world stops mistreating animals in the name of tradition or culture.”

But not everyone is convinced, especially those who make a living from the dog meat trade.

“We recognize that many more people don’t eat dog meat than do. We know the market is declining… but it’s still our right to run a business,” Joo Yeong-bong said , an experienced dog breeder and the president of the Korean Edible Dog Association.

He says better regulation of the industry – previously there was little or none – could have addressed many animal rights concerns.

And then there’s Dr. Ahn Yong Geun, a former professor of food engineering at Chungnam National University, often nicknamed “Dr. Dog Meat.”

One of the few dog meat researchers in South Korea, he began his research during the 1988 Olympics, frustrated by what he saw as a passive response by the government and academia to foreign criticism, and now advocates for the benefits of eating dog meat.

According to Dr. Ahn, it is low in unsaturated fat and could have served as a healthy substitute for beef or pork.

Instead, it appears the decision is being relegated to history – a decision he disputes because it conflicts with fundamental freedoms set out in the country’s constitution.

“You can’t dictate what people can or can’t eat,” says Mr Joo, a dog breeder.

It’s a sentiment shared by Lee Bora, a dog owner in her 30s who opposes eating dog meat and welcomes the new law, but adds that she is “kind of worried” about to its implications.

“Emotionally, I wish people wouldn’t breed and slaughter dogs for food,” she says.

“However, in principle I think dogs are not that different from cows or pigs.”


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