TL;DR: Many countries eat dog, not just South Korea. There are a lot of problems within the industry, which is barely regulated, but the problem isn’t as simple as South Korea rooting out the custom altogether. Neither is the problem just about a ‘backward, barbaric’ culture. Here’s our guide to understanding the larger context behind dog eating in South Korea.
Prior to the Pyeongchang Olympics, nearly 500,000 individuals signed a petition on Change.org to boycott the winter games, citing “barbaric brutality” of the dog-eating culture in South Korea.
Fair enough. It’s not difficult to find a dog meat restaurant in South Korea, although you won’t find any prominent advertisements on the subway. Dog meat is in a legal limbo. It’s neither fully legal nor illegal.
In 2017, there were over 17,000 dog meat farms nationwide; an estimated two million dogs were butchered annually. Over 80 percent of these farms were unregistered.
While the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs categorizes dogs as livestock, the Ministry of Food and Drugs doesn’t officially identify it as food. What’s more, the dog livestock industry is barely regulated because in 1978, president Park Chung-hee took dog out of the Livestock Product Hygiene and Management Act.
The most popular season for dog-eating has traditionally been summer, especially on boknal, the days that mark the beginning, peak and the end of the season according to the Chinese calendar. Dog meat is thought to boost one’s physical condition during the heat of Korean summer. It is also rumored to be good for male virility — a demystified idea — which may explain why more men take a liking to dog meat than women do.
In the past, when the country was largely agrarian with scarce sources for meat, dog meat was a cheaper source of protein compared to pork or beef (though today, dog meat isn’t very cheap anymore, and at times more expensive than pork and even beef).
In 2017, almost one in five South Koreans owned a cat or a dog as pets. Along with the rise of pet ownership, many South Koreans today — especially but not exclusively the young — find the dog-eating culture repugnant.
The generational divide is evident when it comes to dog eating in South Korea. Those in their teens to thirties mostly see dogs as companions, naturally disapproving of eating dogs. The older generation, in their fifties and above, who grew up eating dog on boknal, are generally more accustomed to the culture that’s been around for centuries in the region.
According to a 2017 survey, nearly 70 percent of South Koreans said they did not eat dog. In contrast, less than 20 years ago, around 80 percent approved of dog-eating. A year before the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, the biggest dog meat market in South Korea closed — until then, around 80,000 dogs were annually traded at Moran Market, in the city of Seongnam just south of Seoul.
In the past, debates over dog-eating centered around the industry’s poor hygiene and inhumane conditions at dog farms — although breeding conditions for other livestocks don’t necessarily fare better. Today, the conversation is slowly shifting to outlawing the meat altogether.
That said, some still get defensive at the criticism from the outside. Taking pride in the country’s traditional cuisine, some South Koreans, notably the Korea Dog Farmers’ Association, are piqued by harsh criticism, calling for the legalization of dog as food.
Most dog-meat restaurants today are hidden in back-alleys, without explicit signs. In the past, it was common to see eateries advertising “bosintang,” which literally means nurturing soup, but is understood to mean dog meat soup. More restaurants use vaguer, less common terms like yeongyangtang (nutritious soup) or sacheoltang (four seasons soup), which include soups made from other meat like chicken.
South Korea is not the only country that has dog meat for sale and consumption. Its neighbors, like China and Vietnam, also receive routine international criticism for inhumane practices of their dog meat industries. Humane Society, a group that aims to stop animal suffering, estimates over 30 million dogs are killed in Asia annually for food.
Today in South Korea, it’s not hard to get your hands on dog meat soup if you know where to go. But those who look for it are in a minority, and chances are, most of them won’t be Instagramming about it.
Cover image: People queue up at a popular samgyetang (chicken soup) joint on Malbok, one of the three boknals. Over the years, chicken has grown more popular, replacing dog meat, due to growing negative perceptions of the dog meat industry. (Source: Republic of Korea via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)