PyeongChang 2018 and The Dog Meat Debate

Image source: PyeongChang2018

Stephanie Kim, Staff Writer

South Korea is known for many things: technology, entertainment, and more recently, the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. But, there also exists a controversial topic which puts a blemish on the country’s culture: the practice of eating dogs.


Recently, US Olympian Gus Kenworthy made headlines after rescuing a puppy from a dog farm, calling attention to the problem in South Korea. While at the farm, he was able to see firsthand the treatment of these “meat dogs” – they were crammed in small cages and shivered against the biting cold, watching with bleakness in their eyes. And this farm is supposedly one of the better ones, according to Nara Kim of the Humane Society International.


In a statement issued via Twitter, Kenworthy wrote, “Yes, there is an argument to be made that eating dogs is a part of Korean culture. And, while I don’t personally agree with it, I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here. The way these animals are being treated, however, is completely inhumane and culture should never be a scapegoat for cruelty.”


While it is clear Kenworthy had good intentions at heart, people had their qualms. Joon Lee, a Korean journalist based in the United States, brought to attention the fact that most Koreans do not eat dogs and oppose the practice, and the sheer number of dogs killed in Korea for meat is incomparable to the billions of livestock killed for food in the United States each year.


He also added, “the imposition of western standards puts a strong spotlight on a dying stereotype among Korean people that I think is unfair and misrepresentation of culture.”


Some even called it neo-colonialism, bringing up the point that consuming pigs, chicken, and cows instead of dogs didn’t exactly give Kenworthy the moral high ground, considering that these animals live in equally as horrible, if not worse, conditions. Others brought to attention the number of shelter pets euthanized in the United States, a figure reaching approximately 1.5 million annually, and urged Americans to fix their domestic issues first before getting involved in international ones.


As a Korean-American myself, I can see where Kenworthy’s critics are coming from. Dog eating is not a common practice anymore, as most of it only occurs in areas known as the shigol, or countryside. Many foreigners seem to have the misconception that they can stroll to the nearest food vendor in Seoul and be served dog meat, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Most people nowadays frown upon eating dogs, considering them to be companions instead of food, and there has been a lot of pressure, from both international and national groups, to get the government to outlaw the consumption of dogs. Taiwan, just across the South China Sea to South Korea, banned eating dog and cat meat, the first Asian country to do so, and many are hoping that South Korea follows along their footsteps.


Despite this, there is still a small faction that believe that dog eating is a big part of Korean culture (debatable) and that infringing on it would be a lot like trying to take away their rights (think America and their guns). And the reason is this: South Korea may be tiny, but it’s a fiercely nationalistic country. In hindsight, the Koreans kind of have to be – historically speaking, their nation has been invaded and occupied numerous times, their families tortured under the Japanese occupation, and the entire country broken in half after a war that was never actually resolved.


Today, while life has gotten marginally better, as the capital city, Seoul, has transformed into a sprawling metropolis, South Korea still struggles with constant threats of nuclear annihilation from their neighbors to the north. Thus, nationalism is such an important Korean value that the people don’t really want to listen when other nations tell them what to do, as they are still wary of foreign influence, considering they haven’t quite forgotten what happened with Japan. South Korea today still remains a very homogenous society.


Still, to reiterate, this population that believes there is nothing wrong with the consumption of dog meat remains a very small percentage, and the numbers dwindle as time goes on. I wholeheartedly agree with Kenworthy – the dog meat trade is inhumane, and needs to end. It’s a blemish on the Korean culture and the country as a whole.


But, I also believe that Kenworthy could have worded things a bit more carefully. For one, he wrote, “despite the beliefs of the Korean public at large, these dogs are no different from the ones we call pets back home.” While I doubt he meant this in an offensive tone, it’s very easy for things to get twisted around. The nuance of “the Korean public at large” almost makes it seem that the Korean population is willing to turn a blind eye to the cruelty happening within their country’s borders, and that Koreans tend not to like dogs. While this isn’t true for all, as most Koreans today oppose the consumption of dogs and pet ownership has grown substantially.


Similarly, many Western activists almost make it seem as though people in South Korea are passively letting this practice continue. Some people even went so far as to attempt to boycott the Pyeongchang Olympics (which clearly didn’t work), painting the entire nation as a country full of heartless dog murderers, and therefore, incapable of feeling the “Olympic Spirit.” However, many national groups have been actively fighting against the dog meat trade, putting pressure on the government to pass legislation to end it. Most South Koreans agree that it’s time to put down this antiquated practice, once and for all.


I’ve been asked one too many times by misinformed people if I’ve ever eaten dogs, and every single time, I have fought the urge to roll my eyes and tell them that no, I have never eaten a dog, nor do I plan on doing so in the future. I’m not the only person who’s experienced this – I’m sure many Asians have been asked this question at least once in their lives. Today, “dog-eater” has become an risqué, darkly humorous stereotype of Asians that (like most offensive statements towards Asians) gets brushed aside as a joke. Still, it’s a rather negative stereotype, and while awareness of the issue is imperative for bringing change, things can can also get twisted and end up breeding even more ignorance.


Still, there is a lot of room for change. Dog eating has dwindled in recent years, and government pressure has led to many dog meat vendors closing down shop. Additionally, there has been a lot of animal rights groups making strides in shutting down dog farms and the dog meat trade across the Asian continent. The dog farm Kenworthy visited, for example, has been shut down by the Humane Society International, and there are plans for the rescued dogs to be put up for adoption in the US and Canada.


We can help by being aware that things like this happen and spread the word. The Humane Society International accepts donations which go towards rescue, not just in South Korea but also in China, Indonesia, Thailand, and more. Here, in the United States, we can take action from the comfort of our own homes – fostering rescues who need a place to stay can go a long way. For those who want to take a step and add a dog to their family, adoption is the best way to help.


Gillian Herzberger, co-president of the Animal Rights Club here at Hills, agrees that “adopt, don’t shop” is the best way.  “I’m a big supporter of adopting,” Herzberger says. “I don’t agree with dog farms and breeding. There’s so many homeless dogs, so why not just give them a home?”


What I believe is this – the dog farming industry in South Korea is inhumane and should be stopped, and I’m glad that there has been a lot of mobilization on both the Korean side and the international side to bring this practice to a halt. However, some of the western impositions on this argument have been a little harsh, lumping in an entire group of people with the small population who actually cause the problems, spreading around a negative worldview on the Korean people as a whole. It’s not really our place to force our opinions on a culture six thousand miles removed, and if we’re being honest, it’s not like they’ll listen anyway.