James Hendicott explores the changing fortunes of Korea’s long persecuted canines
It’s Sunday morning in trendy Apgujeong, Seoul, and twenty five year old Hwang Hye Young and her two friends are slurping on their Cappuccinos and mulling over the weeks gossip. They raise their voices every so often, straining to be heard over the equally passionate nattering taking place between their five pampered pooches. Hwang beckons the waiter, ordering a second bowl of strawberry milkshake from the café’s special menu, and passing it swiftly to her enthusiastic pet. ‘We like it here’ she explains as she reaches into her Louis Vuitton handbag for payment, ‘the dogs get a treat too’.
Across town in the working class district of Gangseo Gu, fifty five year old businessman Chun Oh Kyu is tucking into a late breakfast. He went drinking with customers last night, and has settled on a traditional hangover cure: dog soup. Chun sees dog meat the same way your average carnivore sees a steak. ‘We don’t eat pets’ he’s careful to emphasise. Press coverage has made him wary of his Sunday morning ritual, but he’s been eating dog meat since he was a child, and knows this restaurant breeds the animals specifically for eating. Besides, he wouldn’t feel any different if it were any other meat in front of him.
In South Korea, man’s best friend divides opinion in a way that only government attitude towards the Communist North can match. Doggy digestion is a newfound taboo, largely imported over the past couple of decades alongside Hwang’s designer wardrobe and a whole host of other Western influences. Dog meat dates back to harder times on the peninsula, and is still accompanied by other wartime staples such as Silkworm Larvae (a popular boiled snack) and a fondness for foods crammed full of Spam in Seoul’s diners. Chun’s parents may very well have depended on his hangover cure to get enough protein in their diets, and – despite Korea’s modern day economic success – Chun sees no reason to change. Hwang, on the other hand, is somewhat embarrassed by the subject.
Chun’s breakfast is, in fact, technically illegal, and he’s finding it increasingly hard to find somewhere to pick it up. ‘This is my third regular restaurant this year’, he explains, ‘it’s getting harder and harder to find’. Despite the decline, eating dog meat is a practice commonly accepted amongst older generations, and the police rarely enforce the law. In fact, an attempt to legalize the butchering of dogs as livestock this April was quickly quashed by angry animal rights protests. An Indian MPs suggestion that stray dogs in New Delhi be sent to Korea for ‘disposal’ was greeted with equal disdain, and even became the root of a minor diplomatic dispute between the two nations.
This newfound awareness – though far from universal – is a sure sign of things to come. This kind of public uproar over dogs has long been levelled at Koreans, but until now the protests have rarely perpetrated by them. Korean culture has a reputation for being stunningly slow to change, but Hwang is typical of a younger generation who are gently bringing in a long awaited change in attitude.
That’s not to say it’s over. The dog’s journey from plate to palate is entrenched in Korean culture: barring a dramatic crackdown, man’s best friend will still be filling Seoul’s soup bowls for some time to come. The shift in thoughts and feelings, however, it clear to see. Dog is going underground, and sooner or later the collective conscious of Korea’s youth will be the death of it. The soup, that is.
As published in K9 Magazine issue 27, March 2009.