After years of criticism from animal welfare groups, a South Korean market selling dog meat for human consumption is finally facing new rules, imposed Monday. The restrictions come after complaints from local residents about the noise and smell, but authorities are also eager to stave off any international controversy before the country hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics. South Korea took similar measures prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 World Cup.
Animal rights campaigners have long condemned the conditions at the Moran Market in Seongnam. But despite recent news headlines heralding the complete end of dog killing markets, the animal welfare charity CARE released a statement Wednesday, clarifying that dog meat will still be on sale at Moran market, and that only the display of live dogs and killing at onsite slaughterhouses will be stopped.
South Korea is a country more typically known for infectious pop songs, an intense education system, new technology and cute sheet masks. And yet the South Korean government is still struggling with the practise of eating dog meat among older, rural Koreans.
When it comes to how many dogs are killed for meat in South Korea each year, estimates vary, but some reports say the number of animals killed could be as high as 2.5 million. For a population of nearly 50 million Koreans, this number is fairly small, but it’s a top concern for animal rights activists and repulsed outsiders used to western norms.
The city government for Seongnam, where Moran Market is located, had announced in December that dog slaughter and butchering would be banned in 2017. The 22 dog meat butcher businesses were to be permanently closed by May.
Vendors at the market keep live dogs in cages for customers to choose, and then slaughter the dogs openly. It annually sells 80,000 canines for consumption, according to the Korea Herald. The new rules will mean that customers will no longer be able to view the dogs, nor witness the killings.
Animal organizations and foreign press often give the impression that dog meat is widespread in Korea; it is not. Given the population of Korea and the number of dogs annually consumed here, a South Korean would eat one full dog during his 81 year life span. Compare that with a South Korean’s actual yearly diet: 20.9 kg of pork, 11.5 kg of chicken and 10.3 kg of beef, according to a 2015 government report.
So where does this tradition maintain? The answer is: far from South Korea’s urban epicenters. The lifestyle for many of those in places like Seongnam is starkly different from that in Seoul, Busan or other major cities. You’re more likely to buy your food and clothes from open air markets rather than a large mall. It does not feel like the 21st century in many rural areas, while the cities pulsate with cell phone stores on every block and 24-7 eateries.
Just as the landscapes differ, Koreans’ attitudes about dog meat vary hugely. They’re starkly divided among rural and urban, rich and poor, old and young. Typically, older rural folks are not opposed to eating dog meat. They say it’s part of Korean culture, and insulting to Westerners simply because of some irrational taboo.
The upwardly mobile urban dwellers often feel disgusted by dog meat – being far more likely to Instagram a cute pup than eat it. A Gallup Korea study in 2015 found that only 17 percent of twentysomethings had tried dog meat in the last year, compared to 39 percent of those in their 50s and a third of people 60 or older.
There’s a generational gap in how dog meat is viewed – in large part because South Korea has radically changed in the past 50 years. The country was prone to famines, foreign invaders, and dictators for much of the 20th century; its GDP was among the lowest worldwide. Now, it ranks high on global charts for living standards. As South Korea clawed itself out of poverty, the need to eat dog meat lessened — and the social censure increased.
During a press conference two months ago, Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung – a rising political star – was concerned with Korea’s image as a country that accepts the practise of eating dog. “Seongnam City will take the initiative to transform South Korea’s image since ‘The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’”
But for older Koreans, this new clampdown on dog meat is unfamiliar and daunting. Dog butchers at Moran Market worry that they might have suddenly lost their livelihood. One longtime vendor told the Korea Herald this week that it’s nonsense for the government to force him to find a new job. “Can you eat food with your left hand when you were a right-handed person for your entire life?”