Prancing on a chair in a fashionable cafe, an 11-month-old beagle wears a red patent-leather collar and a sweater in festive Christmas colors. Nobody seems bothered when she puts her paws on the cafe table or tries to lap at her owner’s cappuccino. In fact, this cafe is designed especially for dog owners--the menu even includes dog food--and many of the clients say they wouldn’t consider going out on weekends to any establishment that didn’t welcome their pets.
“My dog comes first,” says Kim Ju Young, a 29-year-old marketing manager who, with her beagle, Blue, patronizes several new cafes in Seoul that cater to dogs.
Across town there is another eating establishment where the clientele speaks highly of dog. Dog meat, that is, the specialty of the house.
“Dog meat gives a man strength and vigor,” declares 86-year-old Park In Bok, a retired businessman, polishing off a bowl of spicy crimson soup made of stewed canine, red pepper and sesame leaves.
There are two kinds of dogs in South Korea, those that are coddled, coiffed and often treated with more indulgence than children--and those that are raised as a culinary delicacy. Therein lies a contradiction inherent in Korean culture that has become a veritable tempest in a soup pot.
The long-standing practice of eating dog has come under fire of late because of a well-publicized campaign by foreign animal rights activists and because of the increasing popularity of dogs as pets.
The flap started in November when the organizers of the World Cup soccer games, to be co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in May and June, publicly called on Koreans to “show the world that it is sensitive to vociferous worldwide public opinion and that it rejects cruelty.” Then the French actress Brigitte Bardot touched a raw nationalist nerve by accusing Koreans of savagery in the methods they use to slaughter dogs for consumption.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Norfolk, Va.-based organization, in November submitted a petition signed by dozens of celebrities asking the South Korean government to crack down on what it calls the torture of cats and dogs. Cem Akin, the organization’s lead investigator on the issue, said the problem is not the use of dogs for food but the methods of killing.
“Dogs and cats, cows, sheep and chicken all have the ability to feel pain. Our basic point is that all animals used as food should be kept out of cruel food production methods. Culture and tradition are not an excuse for cruelty,” Akin said.
To say that Koreans are defensive about this matter is an understatement. Hardly a day goes by without an indignant editorial in the South Korean press defending the eating of dog meat to the point where it has become a national obsession. The editorialists cite everything from anthropological theories of cultural relativism to Confucian principles of hierarchy that make it acceptable for a human being to consume animals of lower position.
The official South Korean news agency, Yonhap, gloatingly reports the discovery of a village in Switzerland where smoked dog meat sausage is a local specialty, while China’s ambassador to Seoul, Li Bin, was widely quoted in the South Korean press after he spoke up at a breakfast meeting of editors in support of dog-eating as an integral part of Korean culture.
A group of 167 prominent Koreans, including intellectuals, academics and trade unionists, issued a statement last month denouncing Western critics of dog-eating as “ethnocentric” and the “real barbarians for failing to understand the relativity of culinary culture.”
“We do not understand the snail-eating, horse meat-eating cuisine that some Westerners seem to like,” read their statement. “Korea should not attempt to appease [foreign] critics, for to do so is to betray their own culture.”
Issue Is Debated on the Internet
An emotional and often ribald debate has erupted too on the Internet. One angry defender of eating dog declares that Bardot likes dogs because “animals can’t talk back and tell her how stupid she is!!!"--one of the few printable messages.
Exasperated by the whole affair and eager to put the matter to rest before the opening of the World Cup in May, the South Korean legislature last month introduced a bill that would formally legalize the eating of dog but regulate the manner in which canines are slaughtered. Although electric shock is now widely used, traditional methods included burning, boiling, strangling and beating, based on the belief that a frightened animal experiences an adrenalin rush that makes its flesh a medicine against male impotency.
“Korean men would eat absolutely anything if they thought it would increase their virility,” complains Kum Sun Ran, the director and founder of the Korean Animal Protection Society. The wife of a pharmacist, Kum says that there is no medical evidence that dog meat cures impotency, but that unethical dog meat vendors and restaurants sometimes slip aphrodisiacs into the meat to promote the myth. “I try to tell the men that even if it is true, now there is Viagra and they don’t need to eat dog. But they do not listen.”
Braving torrents of hate mail, Kum has led a lonely campaign here against dog-eating. She regularly visits the livestock markets to see how dogs are being treated and engages the salesmen in conversation. Her argument is that it was OK for Koreans to eat dog back in the days when it was a badly needed source of protein, but that the practice now should rise beyond its past--and beyond other Asian countries where dog meat is regularly consumed.
“Korea is an affluent country. It can’t be compared to Vietnam or Sri Lanka or China. It is time for this abominable practice to be stopped,” Kum said.
An estimated 2 million canines are raised each year in South Korea for dog meat--about the same number as are kept as household pets.
In the shadow of the modern high-rises of downtown Seoul, you can find live dogs offered for slaughter at a sprawling outdoor market. They are huddled for warmth in small mesh cages, stacked next to ducks, chickens and the occasional cat. (Although Koreans do not regularly eat cat meat, some people believe soup of boiled cat to be a tonic against rheumatism.)
“We’ve been eating dogs like this for a long time. My grandfather raised dogs. It is part of our tradition,” said Choi Il Jong, a vendor. He says the dogs, most of them yellow-brown in color, are “what we consider lower-grade mixed-breed dogs that are raised in the countryside. We kill them by electric shock. They don’t suffer.”
In 1988, when the Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, a similar controversy erupted over dog meat, and the government tried to close down dog restaurants to avoid offending foreign visitors. But the Koreans are taking a harder line about defending their cuisine this time, and there are no such moves underway today.
South Korea is home to an estimated 6,000 restaurants that specialize in dog. One of the best known is Sarijib, a traditional restaurant in northern Seoul where customers sit around low tables on the floor and feast on poshintang, literally “nutritional boost soup,” which is said to be helpful for people recovering from operations.
“Doctors recommend dog meat. It is easier to digest than other meats,” says waitress Park Sun Ae, serving up steaming bowls of the bright broth. “We have a lot of customers who are singers and performers who want dog soup to protect their voices, weak people too who need the nutrition. . . . We even have people from the French Embassy.”
A ‘Clash’ Between Older, Younger Generations
Korean cuisine includes many ingredients that might make Westerners pause. One popular dish that street vendors spoon out from gurgling caldrons is pondaegi, a snack made of the larvae of silkworms. It is said to be a favorite of children. In his book, “The Koreans,” author Michael Breen describes his first impression of Korean soups as full of “murky items” that appear to have “been dropped in by mistake.”
But the dog meat flap is not merely a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations. Many South Koreans too are squeamish about eating dog.
“There is certainly a clash between the older and younger generation, and this is elegantly depicted by apartment complexes where you can find a pet shop frequented by the young out in front and a dog meat restaurant in the back alley,” said filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, whose film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” released in 2000 deals with the conflicts in a building between dog lovers, dog haters and dog eaters.
Traditionally, dogs were treated as farmyard animals, but their popularity as household pets has soared in recent years as the country has become more affluent. In middle-class neighborhoods, veterinary clinics and pet stores selling expensive dog sweaters can be found on almost every street.
Even by the standards of Europe, where dogs are permitted in many restaurants, South Koreans now go to extraordinary lengths to indulge their pets. A Seoul movie theater recently hosted a film screening designed for dogs and their owners. At least 10 cafes have opened in South Korea in the past year that are designed specifically for dog owners, and new cafes are reported to be opening regularly.
BAU Haus, a cafe near Seoul’s main art school, is crowded on a weekday afternoon with mostly young women and teenage girls cooing over their pets. The owner, former art student Jeong Jin Woo, who opened the cafe in April, predicts that in the coming years the habit of eating dog will gradually fade into oblivion with the passing of the older generation.
“Our culinary culture cannot be changed overnight, but it is clear that the dog-eating population is becoming smaller than the dog-owning population,” Jeong said. Though he himself owns 10 dogs, Jeong has tasted dog and defends the tradition. “I love dogs, but it really is no different from eating a cow or a sheep. An animal is an animal.”
‘We Koreans Have to Defend Our Traditions’
Other Korean dog owners too are surprisingly tolerant of the tradition. Kim Ju Young, owner of the beagle Blue, is so crazy about dogs that she will only take a job where she can bring her dog to the office and says she would defer having children if it would upset her dog. Yet she too tasted dog as a girl--her parents secretly fed her dog meat soup when she was preparing for exams to improve her health and performance.
“We Koreans have to defend our traditions. I read once that the queen of England eats pigeon for breakfast. Now that’s disgusting,” Kim said.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.