Bone Of Contention

Illustration by Caitlin Ng

Illustration by Caitlin Ng

South Korea’s controversial tradition of eating dog

By Hyun-Jin Seo

A gust of chilly winter wind makes me pull my coat tighter as I enter a sprawling open-air market in Seongnam City, South Korea. Thousands of colorful tents are crammed together, with shoppers stuffed in every available space between them. With both elbows, I dig deeper into the labyrinth of makeshift stalls before the stench of raw meat assaults my senses. As the aisles of sock merchants yield to butcher stands, I pass by an array of chopping blocks, each one bearing a slab of meat, a rack of ribs, or a hind leg with black claws and small tufts of fur. The largest dog meat district in Korea spreads out before me.

The Moran dog market, just a 25-minute drive south of downtown Seoul, boasts the best prices in the country, $6.80 per pound for dog shank. Incongruously, the market is also one of the largest hubs for people seeking a family dog or pet supplies. At the heart of the dog meat district, I hear vendors attracting pedestrians to live dogs that might easily be given a new home, even as other dogs nearby are sold for Sunday dinner.

In Korea, there are two kinds of dogs: the mixed breeds that are raised outdoors like livestock, for meat, and the other breeds—such as Chihuahuas, Schnauzers and Cocker Spaniels—that will become pets. A native Korean, I had come to the dog market searching for an answer to my question: How is it possible for Koreans to think of dogs as both pets and food?

Growing up in a family of traditional Buddhists, dog meat would never be our choice for dinner. Buddhists, who represent about a fifth of Korea’s population, believe dogs could be reincarnated friends and family from past lives. Eating dog would bring exactly three years of bad karma, according to my mother.

Still, I was aware of the practice and heard theories from my male friends on how dog meat could improve men’s sexual stamina. It wasn’t until I came to the US that I realized how negatively the West regards the practice—because I was frequently asked about Koreans’ dog-eating habits. But I was as puzzled as my questioners.

At UC Berkeley, I met Kim Ui Young, a 31-year-old engineering graduate student, through a mutual friend. We soon found that as graduate students in America, we shared similar interests and nostalgia for Korean culture and food. But the first sign of dissonance became apparent when we broached the subject of eating dog. Kim has been an avid dog eater since his childhood.

Food Rules: What we eat that others won’t

Beef and India

Hindus believe cattle should not be eaten and should be protected from any harm. But in India, eating beef is not illegal at the national level. And despite the sacred status of cows, the country has become the world’s first-largest exporter of beef, according to a US Department of Agriculture report. Several states, including Delhi, have laws against slaughtering cattle, but most of them don’t specify if restaurants are allowed to sell imported beef. “I still haven’t been able to figure out what is what myself, even after three years of running a restaurant,” a Delhi-based restaurateur told the Wall Street Journal in May 2012. A beef-eating festival at Osmania University in Hyderabad, South India, caused heated debates about the rights of meat lovers versus respect for religious beliefs in India. A promoter of the festival, Meena Kandasamy, wrote for Outlook India magazine in April 2012: “There is no point getting offended if someone enjoys beef in all its juicy glory.”

Foie gras and Western Europe, Turkey—and California

Foie gras, first produced in France and made from the livers of specially raised geese, is considered a delicacy among gourmets. But because of its cruel method of production, which includes force-feeding and a harsh, short life for the birds, foie gras has been banned in several countries worldwide. The European Union enacted a law prohibiting the production of foie gras in its member countries, except where its production is part of the country’s cultural heritage, as in France. In 2004, Turkey not only banned foie gras but the production or import of any food derived from force-feeding animals. In the US, California is the only state that forbids the production and sale of foie gras, both domestic and imported. The law, enacted in 2012, has been challenged both in the courthouse and in the kitchen. According to The New York Times, some California chefs continue to serve foie gras in their restaurants.

Pork and Pakistan

The Koran forbids Muslims to eat pork, which means 97 percent of Pakistani residents consider pork and any pork-based products inedible. Eating pork is not against the law–legislation is not necessary since pigs are considered unclean, explains Amna Hassan, a Pakistani student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “It’s the same as eating bugs in the US,” she says. Pakistan’s state law forbids the import of pork but not the slaughter or sale of pork. Some pig-based products, like US-imported pork jerky (actually dry onions cooked in pork fat), have appeared in the shops and markets of Pakistan, causing national outrage, even among non-Muslims. In the most conservative regions of the country, especially rural areas, people will have a very hard time finding a job or getting married if they’re caught eating a piece of bacon. Anyone running for office with a record of pork consumption would have little to no chance of winning the election.

For as long as he can remember, his mother always prepared dog soup anytime a family member fell ill. Mother Kim would put the soup on the stove and their kitchen soon filled with the thick aroma of meat and roasting sesame. His mouth would water at the smell of steam rising from a massive iron pot.

Once the soup had cooked for two hours, Kim would go to the table hoping to catch a morsel while his mother stripped the boiled meat into shreds and placed it back in the broth. Kim’s Chihuahua, Worry, would always be at his heels, anxious to ensure his part of the feast. (Worry’s name comes from the Korean onomatopoetic word for barking: wory, wory, wory.) Stirred by the night’s potent aromas, the tiny dog would wag his tail in frenzy. “It’s interesting that I’ve never put the dogs in my broth and Worry at the same level,” Kim says.

Unlike his jumpy Chihuahua, Kim says, the dogs raised for meat lack emotion and spirit. They are called yellow dogs or shit dogs, a literal translation based on their diet of people’s scraps and feces. “You’d understand what I mean if you looked into their eyes,” Kim says. “They’re just dull.”

Many Koreans, not just outsiders, find it puzzling that such a practice could be maintained in a country where approximately 1 in every 5 households has a dog and considers it a beloved family member. I looked to the past for the reasons.

In Korea, dogs were consumed long before they began to be kept as pets. Initially, the taste for dog meat was driven by necessity. In a country where 70 percent of the landmass is mountainous, farming practices were less suited to breeding high numbers of livestock. Chickens were expensive and scarce. Hunting wild dogs was one of the few ways to get protein. The practice wasn’t limited to simple peasant folk but also extended to the upper reaches of society. According to the Annals of the Royal Dynasty, the ancient diaries of the Korean aristocracy, steamed dog was a delicacy, served as the birthday dinner of the king’s mother.

Today, beef, chicken, and other stock animals are as cheap and accessible as yellow dogs. But traditions die hard, and many Koreans still regard dog meat as a special treat. Dog soup season falls on the hottest three days of the lunar year, aptly named “Dog Holidays.” Unceasing streams of customers line up for the pungent broth, believing that it will recharge their inner yang and help them to endure Korea’s stifling heat, which is traditionally considered yin, a feminine force. This deeply ingrained concept has long attracted Korean men to the dish and transformed it into a symbol of masculinity.

Korean men’s connection with dog meat is not only rooted in consumption but also in the surrounding ritual. One of Kim’s fondest childhood memories happened during Dog Holidays, a highly anticipated family tradition when he would go for a picnic in a deep mountain valley with his male relatives. First, the men would pick a dog to be cooked at the gathering. Kim remembers vividly how dogs struggled on the way to the valley. Perhaps they instinctively felt death near at hand, he muses.

When they arrived at the cookout area, Kim’s father would hang the dog in a bag and beat it to death with a stick. He and others believed this would make the meat more tender due to the dog’s surge of adrenaline. (Scientific studies have proven this belief to be false.) After killing and cleaning the animal, Kim’s relatives would simmer its entire body for two hours.

Meanwhile, the men prepared soybean paste and added a handful of ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. Soybean soup harmonizes with ginger and sesame leaf, generating a strong, earthy smell that masks the odor of meat. While the dog cooked, Kim often sat dipping his feet at the water’s edge, the valley spread before him. Dad and the other adults would play poker and drink sake. “No other vacation can compare with it,” Kim says.

For most households, the long-standing tradition of Dog Holidays persisted until the late 1980s, when Korea came under the scrutiny of the international community. The military regime in power at the time was eager to demonstrate Korea’s mounting potential to the world. Hosting the Olympics in Seoul in 1988 was a perfect opportunity to attract attention, but the government didn’t anticipate all the consequences. Suddenly, international media outlets shined their spotlight on the Asian country. One of the first things they noticed was that Koreans ate dogs.

In no time, Western countries were up in arms. International organizations protested in the streets, sent official letters of complaint to their governments, and threatened to boycott products made in South Korea. Aghast at the coverage, the Seoul city government banned the sale of dog meat and revoked licenses of restaurants that served it.

Customers and vendors, however, were not ready to adjust to the rapid change. Covert dog broth dens popped up to fill the demand; restaurant owners changed signs that once read “Dog Broth” to a speakeasy-like code word: “Continue.”

My grandparents, who lived in a rural area, also continued to raise yellow dogs in their backyard and sell them to dog contractors. I remember taking care of the puppies and calling them by nicknames, like Happy or Healthy, but they had always disappeared when I returned a few months later. After losing my new-found friends several times, I stopped naming them. My grandparents maintained this lucrative side job until the late ’90s.

Meanwhile, in the urban areas, the international atmosphere of the Olympics had spurred an already rapidly Westernizing subculture. An influx of Western products and media firmly transplanted the concept of the pet dog. Dogs weren’t typically allowed to live inside the home before. Virtually overnight, families, such as Kim’s, began keeping dogs as indoor pets.

Despite the controversy and divided opinions, the government’s ban on dog broth in Seoul was widely ignored. Korea faced the dilemma of keeping an accepted food tradition and possibly alienating foreigners, or giving it up for the sake of international acceptance. Stuck between a beloved food tradition and a new wave of pet dog culture, the government was paralyzed by indecision.

Heavy criticism from the West re-emerged in 2002 during the Korea-Japan World Cup. This time it was spearheaded by French actress and animal activist Brigitte Bardot, who gave a controversial phone interview on a popular Korean radio show during the event.

“A cultured country does not allow its people to eat dogs,” she said.

“Do you know there are two different kinds of dogs, those for food and those kept as pets?” asked radio host Seok-Hee Son.

After a brief pause, Bardot’s voice sharpened. “The standard is ridiculous. It’s same as racial discrimination to me … it’s a barbaric practice.”

“Do you know there are French people who have consumed dog meat?” Son asked.

Bardot’s outrage peaked. “That’s simply not true. I refuse to speak with liars!” She abruptly hung up.

Bardot’s statements were met with ardent opposition and charges of cultural imperialism. Younger Koreans who had been opposed to dog eating were estranged. And for some in this emerging first-world society under assault, dog eating became a source of national pride.

Dog remained the fourth most consumed meat in Korea after pork, beef, and chicken. Though it had been almost two decades since the Seoul city government designated dog broth as a “repugnant food” during the 1988 Olympics, there still wasn’t a clear-cut ban on the sale or slaughter of dog. Instead, dog butchering was driven underground with no official guidelines to guarantee untainted meat or animal welfare.

The places where Kim’s family could get dog meat were not always the cleanest, and in 2008, a documentary called You Are Eating Your Friends aired on Korea’s public broadcasting system, dealing him and other Korean dog eaters a heavy blow.

In the film, a white pickup truck unloads domesticated dogs into a shop located deep within the dog meat district of the Moran market. The butcher’s house staff set to their tasks silently, and a Beagle, Alaskan Malamute, and Schnauzer are led one by one to slaughter. With a quick jab of a stun gun to the neck, the dogs are driven to the cement and swept away to large cauldrons of boiling water.

According to the documentary, most of these non-yellow dogs were street dogs that had been abandoned by their families. The film also highlighted quality control tests that revealed that butchered dogs in the Moran market’s shops were carrying staphylococcus, a bacteria that can cause pneumonia, meningitis, and urinary tract infections. An official from the National Institute of Health, interviewed for the film, said most abandoned dogs sold in the market have serious diseases, such as skin cancer.

Kim was shocked. “I quit eating dog after watching this documentary,” he says. “I never imagined that the dogs I had been eating were abandoned or had fatal diseases. I felt like I had become a barbarian when I realized that I ate abandoned pet dogs. I wasn’t that desperately addicted to dog stew.” He and his family members, like many other Koreans who had watched the documentary, seemed to have completely lost their appetites for dog meat.

The documentary brought fiery indignation, with much of the anger directed toward dog restaurants. Some people blamed the government for its tepid attitude and ambiguous law. Dog farm owners also voiced their frustrations in response to the documentary. The president of a prominent dog farm coalition group, Choi Young In, argued, “all these controversies are a product of stupid, ineffective laws. All the government cares about is trying not to provoke controversy from either side of the dog dichotomy, and so it remains paralyzed.”

Even though the Korean government recognizes dogs as legal livestock, today the country still has no clear regulations related to slaughtering or hygiene. Despite recent efforts from activists and farmers, the industry continues to operate outside the government’s jurisdiction.

With annual earnings now up to $1.32 billion, it seems the unregulated dog butchering business was not brought down by investigative journalism after all. According to a 2008 report by the Korean newspaper Hankook Daily, more than 2 million dogs are still consumed in Korea each year. Many Koreans may have been grossed out by the film’s revelations, but nostalgia for a childhood favorite seems to have proven more powerful.

Over winter break, Kim and I both returned home after a three-year absence. The first place he chooses to visit is Ehwa, a 15-year-old dog broth restaurant. Kim leans back against a white wall in the corner of the room, basking in the full earthy smell of meat and spices. A huge stainless pot filled with a brown meat stew boils in front of us. “The only thing I care about is whether it’s safe or not to eat,” he says calmly. It’s been about four years since he stopped coming here, four years since he saw the documentary. By now, the shocking scenes appear to have faded from his memory. Today, he says, he needs his lifelong remedy.dots-1