Long viewed by some South Koreans as a food that could revive one’s energy in the summer months, dog meat has officially met its end as a commodity in the East Asian nation.
A new law, which takes effect in 2027, prohibits further breeding, slaughter and sale of dogs as meat. It was approved in a near-unanimous vote of South Korea’s National Assembly last week.
Hailed by local and international animal rights groups, the ban will end a long and oftentimes bitter debate that has tracked decades of social change during which South Korea has seen its global profile explode — and the practice, considered morally objectionable by much of the world, become an increasing public relations liability.
“It was well on its way to going extinct on its own,” said Joo Young-ha, a South Korea-based food anthropologist. “But the law is of course significant in the sense that it reflects changing attitudes in the country toward consumption of dog meat.”
Dog meat has been eaten on the Korean peninsula for centuries.
In the era of dynastic kingdoms, cows were used as a valuable form of agricultural labor rather than food, and pigs were seen as unclean.
In recent decades, as South Korea has prospered and other forms of meat have become more plentiful, the dog meat trade has persisted in a legal gray area, neither explicitly prohibited nor regulated by the country’s livestock or food safety laws.
Because it is seldom sold in markets or grocery stores, few prepare dog meat at home. At restaurants, it is most commonly served as a soup called bosintang, which costs around $10. Those who eat it are generally elderly South Koreans with one foot remaining in a bygone era.
“Some of my customers seek it out as a restorative food after a big surgery,” said Song Bong-ho, the 71-year-old owner of a west Seoul restaurant that is one of the few establishments still serving dog meat in the area.
But increasingly associated with the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of breeding and slaughter arising from its unregulated status, dog meat has come to be shunned by the young.
And at a time when 1 in 4 South Koreans own a pet — and pet strollers are outselling baby strollers at one major online retailer — potential customers are likely to see dogs as companions rather than food.
One survey conducted by a local animal rights group last year found that 93.4% of respondents had no desire to consume dog meat. Today, about 1,600 restaurants nationwide still have dog meat on their menu, down from 6,400 in 1998.
The reputational fallout of eating dog meat, too, has also taken a toll.
Every major international event, beginning with the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, has triggered vehement activism and stoked controversy.
That year, the Seoul municipal government swept dog meat restaurants into alleyways, away from squeamish visiting eyes.
Ahead of the 2002 World Cup, French actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot — a noted caninophile who fed her dogs boiled chicken breast and mashed vegetables — drew fire from South Koreans for describing the practice of eating dog meat as “savage” in an interview with a local journalist.
More recently, animal rights activists pushed to boycott the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, claiming in a petition that “South Koreans genuinely believe that the more the dog is made to suffer, the more it will enrich the quality of the meat.”
Such inflammatory forms of activism have been instrumental in pressuring the country to conform to a more Westernized standard.
But they also have at times prompted acts of racism far beyond the Korean peninsula.
“Stop AAPI Hate has received numerous hate act reports about the use of this racist trope,” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the civil rights group. “For example, a woman in Illinois reported: “As I was walking my dog, someone screamed at me, ‘That’s animal abuse, I’m going to call 311 because I know you’re going to cook your dog.’”
Tasty Thai, a restaurant in Fresno, was recently reportedly forced to shut down after a social media post claiming it served dog meat went viral.
“We saw the impact of anti-Asian racism on restaurants peak during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Choi said. “We have a long way to go to shift the narrative and put an end to this type of bigotry.”
For others, dog meat has served as a provocative thought exercise about the arbitrariness of the moral value humans assign to animals.
Ethicists such as Peter Singer, for example, have argued against speciesism — the idea that dogs should be considered off-limits while pigs, an animal that is no less intelligent, are commonly accepted as food.
Although reliable statistics for dog meat in South Korea are scarce, a recent government survey found that about 390,000 dogs are slaughtered for consumption every year in the nation, while animal rights groups claim that the number is closer to 1 million. By contrast, 18 million pigs are slaughtered annually.
“Ending the use of dogs for meat in Korea would be a small but significant step towards reducing the immense suffering inflicted on animals in that country,” Singer, a vegan, recently told a local newspaper. “But ending the use of pigs for meat would be much more significant.”
Paying homage to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal,” which proposed the poor should sell their children as food to the rich, writer and animal rights activist Jonathan Safran Foer posed a similar question in a satirical essay titled “Let Them Eat Dog” in 2009.
Questioning the morality of eating farmed meat while millions of abandoned cats and dogs are euthanized annually, Foer wrote: “The simple disposal of these euthanized dogs is an enormous ecological and economic problem. But eating those strays, those runaways, those not-quite-cute-enough-to-take and not-quite-well-behaved-enough-to-keep dogs would be killing a flock of birds with one stone and eating it, too.”
Applying this logic in earnest, some in South Korea have suggested that the country simply legalize dog meat and subject it to the same rules as other livestock animals.
But neither this proposal nor the broader questions about animal welfare at large ever caught on.
“I would have liked to see the debate over dog meat lead to a wider reckoning with the ethics of factory farming, especially as foods like Korean fried chicken are becoming popular globally,” said Joo, the food anthropologist. “But that unfortunately didn’t happen. The country just quietly washed its hands of it.”
The government has yet to announce details about how the new law will be implemented, but practical challenges abound.
The Korean Dog Meat Assn., a group representing dog meat farmers’ interests, has butted heads with the government over the question of compensation. Under the bill, farmers are eligible for financial assistance for the costs of dismantling their operations and transitioning to new livelihoods.
“Most are in their 60s or 70s, it is difficult for them to transition into new careers,” said Joo Young-bong, the group’s leader. “We are asking for additional compensation that will cover five years’ worth of lost income.”
No less tricky is the fate of the dogs.
Although the law deals a final blow to the dog meat trade, rising pet ownership in South Korea has also led to increased abandonment. With many animal shelters around the country reporting overflows, there are concerns that many of the dogs released from the farms will simply have to be euthanized.
For animal rights groups that have been campaigning against dog meat in the country, such as Washington-based Humane Society International, one solution is to send rescued dogs to countries abroad, such as to the United States.
Despite an overcrowding crisis at animal shelters around the country, many are willing to pay premiums as high as $2,000 or more to adopt dogs from the meat trade.
“Prospective adopters are certainly intrigued by the unique survival stories of these dogs who have endured such hardship and deserve a second chance at happiness,” said Dr. Katherine Polak, vice president of companion animals at HSI.
But the group, which has arranged the adoptions of about 2,700 dogs rescued from South Korean meat farms since 2015, says that treating, rehabilitating and transporting the dogs is expensive, although it did not provide a specific figure.
“The rescue burden cannot fall on charities alone,” said Lee Sang-kyung, a campaigner with the organization’s local branch. “What we need to see from the Korean government is a properly funded and strategically planned rescue component to the phaseout.”