Seoul, South Korea – For a long time, South Korea has been associated with a stereotype that many of its people enjoyed eating dog.
At every major international sports event hosted by Korea, including this month’s Winter Olympics, activists fight to root out the centuries-old custom.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics marked the first time South Korea received widespread international criticism for eating dog.
During the football World Cup in 2002, French actress Brigitte Bardot campaigned to boycott the event.
In South Korea, dog meat is neither illegal nor fully legal. It is categorised as livestock but not as food by the Ministry of Food and Drugs.
Historically, dog was a popular dish on the Korean Peninsula, especially as a cheaper source of protein than beef or pork, which were valuable resources in a farming society.
There are royal records from the 16th century describing an official who particularly liked the meat (grilled) and whose followers bribed him with dog to get promotions.
“Eating dog was a widespread custom in Asia,” Joo Young-ha, a food historian and the author of the book, Why Do Koreans Eat Like This?, told Al Jazeera.
“Records dating back 150 years show French missionaries eating dog meat in Korea because they realised they wouldn’t get protein otherwise.”
I really hope they’re able to shed more light on the dog meat industry in South Korea during the Olympics …
— yoonie⁷ (@gayoongi) February 12, 2018
In a country where about one-third of households now own a pet, public opinion is turning against canine cuisine.
Last year, the country’s biggest dog market closed – dog merchants in Moran Market, located less than 30km outside the capital Seoul, traded about 80,000 dogs annually.
“Nowadays, it’s different. South Korea is no longer a society where you can have dog meat openly,” Joo said.
It’s not just the outside world that perceives dog-eating as an outdated custom, according to Joo. Many South Koreans, influenced by Western norms, side with the international outcry against the industry’s often inhumane practices towards “man’s best friend”, he said.
The government does not know exactly how many Koreans eat it.
Almost 70 percent of adult Koreans said they do not eat dog, according to a 2017 survey, which also said more than 80 percent of teens said the same. More than half of the respondents, who did not eat dog, said they liked dogs as pets.
But despite the opposition, there are those who are in favour of the custom.
“Looking at dog meat as a barbaric custom is the perspective of the white people,” Professor Ahn Yong-geun, author of the book Koreans and Dog Meat, said. “It’s racism.”
Dog meat has been in legal limbo for decades. But voices are now getting louder to confront the issue in the political arena.
“Dogs are loyal, friendly and brave,” said the Animal Liberation Wave in its global campaign to ban dog meat in South Korea.
“Is a dog food or pet in the Republic of Korea? The government must put an end to its irresponsible silence and neglect and make a decision now.”
In 2015, the Justice Party conducted the first nationwide census and found more than 17,000 dog meat farms.
Two years later, Lee Jeong-mi, leader of the minor opposition Justice Party, reported a significantly reduced number of 2,800 farms raising about 780,000 dogs. (Update: In 2017, the number of farms remained around 17,000. The 2,800 figure refers to the number of registered farms in South Korea.)
According to Lee’s report, the animals were often bred in inhumane conditions. Out of the 20 or so farms she surveyed in the summer, none of the cages had water for the animals.
Many dogs were standing in their own faeces. Some were inside cages where they could hardly move.
Such breeding conditions are not properly regulated because dog has not been part of the Livestock Product Hygiene and Management Act since 1978.
Attempts to regulate the industry, by reintroducing dog meat into the law, have been met by protests from activists.
Last year, the government of Gangwon province, where the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are taking place throughout February, offered to compensate dog restaurants for taking down their signs (while still selling the meat).
This measure was quickly abandoned after fierce protests from animal-rights groups that said this was a face-saving band-aid, not a long-term solution.
South Korea is no longer a society where you can have dog meat openly
“We can no longer avoid this conflict. We can’t put the dog-eating culture in the backburner,” said Lee who is planning to propose a bill that would gradually eliminate the supply chain – closing down the farms while offering farmers adequate compensation.
“I don’t think a culture of a country is fixed for eternity. Culture changes and reflects the circumstances of the times.”
Even those who enjoy the meat are realising the tide is changing.
“I’ve eaten dog since I was young,” said 60-year-old Kim sitting in his 11-year-old restaurant in southern Seoul, which showcases a large banner illustrating the health effects of eating dog.
“The elders said it’s good for male virility. I don’t know if that’s true. To me, there’s nothing as delicious and tender as dog meat.”
Every summer, more than 200 customers visit Kim’s restaurant daily to eat dog. He said that’s about 24 to 48kg of meat daily.
But the popularity is declining. More people opt for a steaming stew of chicken or eel.
Young people shun the meat – most of Kim’s customers are 50 or above. “It’s a product that’s going to disappear,” he said.
Han Sejin is a 24-year-old graphic designer in Seoul.
“I love dogs as pets. I would never eat them. Eating dog has never even been a topic of a conversation,” said Han.
“We’re not a farming society any more. Do we really need to preserve this history?”