Dog meat is a part of Korean cuisine and as well-known internationally as kimchi, but unlike kimchi, it’s not not on any K-food poster. Understandably so. It’s an ugly pus in South Korea’s global branding machine, and it resurfaces whenever there’s a huge international event hosted by the country — the coming winter Olympics in February, for example.
There are online petitions calling for the boycott of the Pyeongchang Olympics (as there were during the 2002 World Cup, notably by French actress Brigitte Bardot). There are the usual efforts to temporarily sweep the issue under the rug: Earlier this year, Gangwon Province, where the Olympics will take place in Pyeongchang, Jeongseon and Gangneung, offered to financially compensate dog restaurants willing to take down the signs (while still selling the meat). They had to abandon the measure after fierce protests from animal rights groups.
In July, hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Seoul calling to ban dog meat. (Source: Juhuifilms X Korea Exposé)
It’s a familiar pattern, and not unprecedented. In 1983, before Seoul hosted the Asian Games in 1986 and the Olympics in 1988, the city outlawed dog restaurants in key sectors of Seoul — the old city center as well as areas surrounding hotels and stadiums. This law isn’t in effect anymore, having undergone revision a few years later.
The problem with dog is, it’s not really illegal nor completely legal as food. Dog is categorized as livestock in the Livestock Act — which means it’s technically food. But it’s not part of the Livestock Product Hygiene and Management Act — late military dictator Park Chung-hee took dog out of this law in 1978 — which means the industry is barely regulated.
The Ministry of Food and Drugs doesn’t see dog meat as its area of jurisdiction. Restaurants are subject to general hygiene laws, but outside that, anything can go, because no central government office oversees the slaughter and distribution of dog. This is a huge problem, not only for consumer health, but also for the animals. The dog industry is criticized, and rightly so, for its inhumane treatment and butchering of the animals.
In the run-up to the Olympics, South Korea closed its largest dog market, which reportedly traded some 80,000 dogs for meat every year. Pyo Chang-won, a lawmaker at the Minjoo Party, is proposing a bill to outlaw dog meat altogether. (A fun side note: Pyo is the lawmaker who sponsored an exhibition showing a nude parody of then-president Park Geun-hye)
Like it or not, the reality is that dog meat exists in South Korea and there are people who eat it — although data concerning consumption is either inconsistent or outdated, yet another sorry consequence of the industry’s murky status. It’s not the most popular meat; nor is it a K-food poster child. But it exists, and it’s not regulated well enough.
Cover image: Dog meat in South Korea is a common subject of international criticism. (Source: Rob Sherridan, Wikimedia Commons)
The video in the article was produced in collaboration with Juhui Kwon, a South Korean filmmaker based in New York City, whose work has been broadcast and screened internationally. For more content, check out her YouTube channel.