Okja's Success Challenges South Korea's Love Affair With Meat

Okja's Success Challenges South Korea's Love Affair With Meat

Jieun Choi
Jieun Choi

Okja may be an imagined creature, brought to life by computer graphics. But the giant “super-pig” with emotive button eyes that hops around the steep yet idyllic mountain ridges of South Korea’s countryside may be changing the landscape of her country’s dinner tables.

Despite the fact that major cinema chains refused to screen Okja, the movie topped the South Korean box office on its opening day on Jun. 29. And the atrocious conditions at the “super-pig” factory in the movie is making vegetarianism and veganism the talk of the country that Okja director Bong Joon-ho calls a “BBQ paradise.”

After watching Netflix’s latest original film, which humanizes a pig as a sentient friend, not a food source, some South Korean Twitter users are talking about becoming vegetarian, or at least expressing their remorse for eating meat. Netflix has also embraced this narrative by posting a short video that compares grocery shopping before and after watching Okja.


Netflix released this short clip on Facebook to highlight how some viewers are interpreting the movie as a call to vegetarianism (Source: Netflix via Trailers Promos Teasers)

What’s surprising is the way vegetarianism has now entered popular parlance even in a country that is crazy for fried chicken and grilled pork belly on every street corner. If anything, South Korea associates eating meat with affluence; as the war-torn nation extricated itself from poverty in the 1970s, more South Koreans became able to afford three meals a day, and meat — either as a main or side dish — was no longer reserved for the rich.

Today, meat — especially pork — is affordable for most South Koreans, while beef, especially the homegrown kind, called hanu, remains more of a luxury.

According to a report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, an average South Korean consumed more than 45 kg of meat in 2015, almost nine times the amount in 1970, with almost half of all meat consumed being pork. During the same 35-year period, consumption of rice and vegetables dwindled, while that of other foods, including fruit and eggs, remained largely the same.

But the director has stated that the film is not a criticism of meat eating itself. Bong, although trying to become a pescetarian, admits that he is still a meat eater.

“Eating or not eating meat is a personal choice. Humans are omnivorous, like other animals. [Eating meat] cannot be a sin,” Bong told daily newspaper Hankook Ilbo.

In fact, in the movie, to console the despondent Mija after her beloved friend Okja is taken away, her granddad cooks her favorite dish, chicken soup. And one member of an animal rights organization in the movie, the Animal Liberation Front, is portrayed as a frail bony man who hesitates even to bite into a cherry tomato when starving, and falters when others sprint to escape.

Instead, Bong warns about mass production in industrial livestock factories. Before writing the screenplay, he apparently visited a slaughterhouse in Colorado where he witnessed the abominable realities of industrial meat production, which he has referred to as a “contemporary Holocaust.”

The idea of animal rights is still a novelty in South Korea, and the distinction between industrial meat production and meat consumption is not strictly clear to many. But Bong is taking this opportunity to change that.

With South Korean animal rights group Kara, Bong is campaigning against the confinement of pigs in stalls. Under the slogan “Farms instead of factories!” the group plans to call for a ban on the use of stalls at pig farms once more than 100,000 people sign its petition.

Whether the popularity of Okja will dent meat consumption in South Korea is unclear. It seems likely that the country’s streets will continue to bustle with greasy pork belly joints, while some will discuss heart-wrenching scenes from Okja as they munch on deep-fried drumsticks. Bong himself, who became vegan for a couple months after his visit to the Colorado slaughterhouse, succumbed to eating meat again (but not pork) after returning to his homeland.

But now that Okja has disturbed the still pool of the meat-hungry South Korean mind, a ripple effect is being felt, with more ethically-conscious animal farming, or even less meat consumption, becoming a part of the national conversation.


Cover image: Netflix original film Okja is raising questions about South Korea’s industrial meat production methods. (Source: Hans/Pixabay)

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