Why is Dog Meat such a Touchy Subject in South Korea?

“Do you eat dog?”

It’s one of the most contentious inquiries a foreigner may ask in South Korea, yet the response and course of action frequently vary depending on the questioner’s age.

“I usually have to emphasise that I have never eaten it since it’s so exhausting. In South Korea, canine foods are primarily served to the elderly, but outsiders frequently generalise about the practice’, says Park Eun-kyoung, a 30-year-old consultant who works in Germany and acknowledges that she occasionally finds the question insulting.

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

The government of South Korea enacted a new rule earlier this week that forbids the breeding, butchering, distribution, and selling of dogs for meat by 2027, so it appears that answering queries like these is becoming less and less common.

It will essentially put an end to a centuries-old custom. According to Dr. Joo Young-ha, an anthropology professor at the Graduate School of Korean Studies, cows were so valuable in the past that, up until the late 19th century, a government authorization was required in order to slaughter them.

Therefore, more protein sources were required. Dog meat was one of the greatest options available to residents of the Korean peninsula, and it was loved by people from all social classes, while some people chose to stay away from it.

“Bosintang” soup is among the most well-known meals made using dog meat.

However, just like with any other meat, popular recipes utilising the commodity arose, including “bosintang,” or dog meat soup, and boiled dog meat slices. Ask elderly South Koreans about it, and many would still tell you that it’s a delicacy that’s simple to digest and gives you energy, especially in the sweltering summer months.

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Thus, when criticism of dog meat consumption started making headlines worldwide during the 1988 Seoul Olympics—at the time, the biggest international event South Korea had ever hosted—it shocked a lot of people.

“At first, a lot of people were upset, particularly the social elites, who thought it was disrespectful to other cultures. However, with time, more people felt guilt and grew more critical,” Dr Joo stated.

After more than thirty years, South Korea has undergone significant change, not the least of which is the prevalence of dog meat consumption.

Just 8% of respondents to a Gallup poll from the previous year reported having tried dog meat, a sharp drop from 27% in 2015. Statistics supplied by the industry-representing Korean Association of Edible Dog indicate a downturn as well.

It claims that there are currently over 3,000 dog breeding farms in South Korea, which is far greater than the government’s estimate of 1,100, but still a dramatic fall from 10,000 in the early 2010s.

In recent years, more Koreans have acquired dogs as pets.

Pet ownership has increased in the meanwhile. According to survey data from 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs estimates that one in four South Koreans keep pets.

Pet strollers were said to have outsold baby buggies for the first time last year in December, however this may have more to do with South Korea’s dropping birth rate than its affinity for animals.

Then there are the first lady Kim Keon Hee and president Yoon Suk Yeol, who are both well-known animal enthusiasts and have five cats and six dogs between them.

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Since the notion was initially proposed decades ago, it has taken this government less than two years to pass the law that prior governments were unable to achieve. The idea that it may be examined under Mr. Yoon’s predecessor was rejected in the face of strong opposition.

See the story from one of the few locations in the capital where dog meat is still served by Seoul correspondent Jean Mackenzie.

Activists, such as Jo Hee Kyung, the leader of the Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA), who has been advocating for the cause since the late 1990s, have nevertheless embraced it.

She argues that the prohibition was the “only option” to end canine abuse and ends by saying, “I hope the world stops abusing animals in the name of tradition or culture.”

However, not everyone is persuaded, least of all those who profit from the trade in dog meat.

“We acknowledge that a much larger proportion of individuals than not consume dog meat. We are aware that the market is contracting. however, we still have the right to operate a business,” stated Joo Yeong-bong, the president of the Korean Association of Edible Dog and an accomplished dog farmer.

He contends that numerous animal rights concerns might have been addressed with greater industry regulation, of which there was previously little to none.

And then there’s Dr. Ahn Yong Geun, also known as “Dr Dog Meat,” a former Chungnam National University food engineering professor.

One of the very few dog meat researchers in South Korea, he started his studies during the 1988 Olympics, angered by what he saw was a passive response by the government and university to international criticism, and now argues for the benefits of consuming dog meat.

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Its low unsaturated fat level means that it could have been a nutritious alternative to beef or pork, according to Dr. Ahn.

It appears that it will instead be consigned to history, a decision he criticises as being in odds with the fundamental liberties guaranteed by the nation’s constitution.

Dog farmer Mr. Joo asserts, “You cannot dictate what people can and cannot eat.”

Lee Bora, a thirty-something dog owner who opposes eating dog meat, feels the same way and appreciates the new regulation, but she also says she is “kind of worried” about its ramifications.

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

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

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