Dog meat and the cultural conquistadors
WASHINGTON, DC -- I have a common sense solution to resolve, once and for all, most of the controversy surrounding Korea’s dog meat consumption. It goes like this:
Regulate the slaughter, processing and consumption of dog meat just like any other meat, because right now, dog meat in Korea is not being regulated as much as it should be. The Livestock Processing Act of Korea regulates the processing of any meat, from slaughter to cooking. Although the Livestock Processing Act covers even the types of meat rarely eaten by Koreans (such as venison, geese and donkey,) dog is a conspicuous absence from the definition of “livestock.” Unregulated by the Livestock Processing Act, meat dog ranching in Korea right now is a deplorable free-for-all, with only the brutal economics governing the way in which the dogs are treated. Dogs are confined in a small cage, often sitting in their own excrement, being fed god-knows-what. The slaughter can happen in just about any manner, and the transportation of live dogs or their meat has no restrictions or guidelines. To anyone with conscience, the meat dogs’ life and death in Korea are appalling.
It is in nobody’s interest that this under-regulation continues. Animal lovers are rightfully distressed by the meat dogs’ poor living conditions. People who like dog meat would much rather be assured that their food is prepared in a hygienic manner. (Plus, meat from a stressed-out animal tastes terrible.) Even dog meat restauranteurs would prefer to guarantee the safety of their food, and shed the dingy-hole-in-the-wall image of their industry.
So this is my proposal: Regulate the dog meat industry just like any other farm animal industry. Ensure that the dogs are given enough space to move in their confinement, ensure that the dogs live in clean conditions eating hygienic feed, and limit the means of slaughter only to the humane kinds applied to other livestock, such as the kind applied to cattle in an abattoir. Once slaughtered, keep the meat hygienic and refrigerated, before it reaches the consumers.
This proposal should be easy to implement, as the proposal is nearly Pareto-optimal – that is, almost everyone would benefit from the proposal with little or no downside. Animal lovers will have less suffering by dogs, dog meat eaters will get better-tasting and more hygienic food, and dog meat merchants will have a chance to take their business to a more upscale, high-margin industry. There is little reason to worry that the Korean government would be at a loss at carrying out the law, as it has plenty of experience in how to regulate a livestock industry.
Of course, there certainly will be some dog meat industry workers who would grumble at the new regulation, and some dog meat customers who would complain about the inevitably higher price of their favorite dish. But those people neither have the political will, nor the means to truly stop the government from implementing such a common-sensical rule, which applies to just about all farm animals in Korea except dogs.
Common Sense, and Those Who Oppose It
You might ask: If my proposal were so common-sensical, why hasn’t it been tried yet? Oh, but it was tried before. In March 2008, the Seoul city government determined that it was problematic for the city to have over 500 dog meat restaurants that did not receive comprehensive hygiene inspection, as dog meat was not covered by the Livestock Processing Act. Therefore, the Seoul city government announced that it planned to recommend the national government for the law to include “dog” in the law’s definition of “livestock.” However, within days after the announcement, Seoul city government dropped the plan.
But why? Who could possibly oppose such common sense proposal that would have improved not only the welfare of the people who eat dog meat, but also the welfare of the dogs that were raised for human consumption, in the form of better living conditions?
Answer: Animal rights organizations. Animal rights activists gathered in front of the Seoul city hall only a day after Seoul city announced its plan for recommendation, to protest the “legalization” of dog meat. The two major animal rights groups of Korea, Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE) and Korean Animal Rights Advocates (KARA), met with Seoul city officials several times to demand that the city retract its plan to recommend changing the Livestock Processing Act. In response, Seoul city stepped back from recommending the national government to change the Livestock Processing Act. The city, however, insisted that it could not compromise on hygiene inspection.
As promised, in April 2008, Seoul city government began conducting limited hygiene inspection on dog meat restaurants pursuant to Food Hygiene Act. Seoul city could have conducted a more broad inspection if dog were considered a livestock under the Livestock Processing Act. But having failed to amend the Livestock Processing Act, Seoul city proceeded under the Food Hygiene Act, which grants the city the authority to conduct a more limited form of hygiene inspection. Instead of overseeing the entire process of raising, slaughtering, processing and cooking of dog and dog meat (as Seoul city could have done under the Livestock Processing Act,) Seoul city was limited to collecting samples of the food served in dog meat restaurants in order to determine whether the dishes contained antibiotics, heavy metal or pathogenic microbes.
This action by Seoul city was perfectly legal, and completely within its power to look after the safety of its citizens. But again, animal rights organizations protested this move again as “legalizing” dog meat. Seoul city followed up with another limited hygiene inspection in July 2008, and animal rights organizations again protested. Since then, Seoul city gave up the effort to conduct hygiene inspections on dog meat restaurants.
It is important to note that the animal rights organizations – specifically, CARE and KARA – and their supporters were the only ones who lodged any objection to Seoul city’s completely reasonable measures. No dog meat aficionado staged a protest in front of the City Hall to protest the cleaner dog meat. No representative from the dog meat industry met with Seoul city official to protest that the new regulations were cumbersome. (In fact, a news report about an unhygienic dog meat restaurant shows the owner being contrite, rather than defiant or angry, after being busted in Seoul city’s inspection sweep.) There literally was no one except animal rights groups that wanted to stop (and did stop) Seoul city’s attempt to regulate the dog meat industry. But for those animal rights groups, meat dogs in Korea may be enjoying a more dignified life, living in clean and spacious environment and slaughtered in a humane manner.
This stunning conclusion bears repeating: it is because of animal rights groups that Korea does not have a common sense measure that would have protected meat dogs from being brutalized.
How could this be? Animal rights groups reply that regulations are pointless, because the Korean government cannot be trusted to faithfully implement those regulations. However, this feeble justification falls apart when facing the fact that CARE worked actively with National Assemblyman Kim Hyo-Seok to pass a significantly expanded Animal Protection Act last year. If CARE could not trust the government to protect animals, what was the point of working with the government to pass a new law? Conversely, if CARE thought an improved Animal Protection Act would actually protect animals, why would it think an improved Livestock Processing Act would do nothing toward protecting meat dogs?
Here is why. Animal rights groups are ultimately not interested in the welfare of dogs. They certainly care about the welfare of meat dogs, but only as a means to their ultimate end – that is, the validation of their worldview through cultural conquest. For animal rights groups, the fight is ultimately about them, not about the animals. The fight is about establishing the superiority of their worldview, and by extension themselves. As long as their worldview is validated, animal rights groups do not care about the fate of meat dogs.
I know that this conclusion is aggressive. But how else can anyone reconcile the apparent irony that animal rights groups denounced a legislation that would have improved the miserable lot of meat dogs in Korea, while celebrating a law that, if their characterization of the Korean government is to be believed, would do nothing to protect animals? A revised Livestock Processing Act would do much, much more good to dogs in Korea than a revised Animal Protection Act. The coverage of the Animal Protection Act is passive and spotty; it can only stop those cruelties that are discovered and reported to the police. In contrast, the coverage of the Livestock Processing Act is active and broad; it would have put the entire industry under the watch of the government, stopping the cruelties committed to vast majority of meat dogs. Yet, animal rights groups supported the former, and opposed the latter. If animal rights groups truly love animals, their actions make no sense.
Thus, while aggressive, this is the only conclusion that makes sense. What matters to animal rights advocates is validation, not animal welfare. To animal rights advocates, the Animal Protection Act is an official approval of their worldview, that animals should be treated kindly. It does not truly matter whether the Korean government actually enforces the Animal Protection Act – what animal rights advocates are seeking is not animal welfare, but the approval itself. In contrast, Livestock Processing Act is an official disapproval of their worldview, that animals should not be eaten. Thus, animal rights advocates oppose it. Stated differently, the desired end result of the animal rights advocates is not a better life for animals. If that were the case, they should have vigorously supported the law that would have provided the most protection for better animal life. Instead, the desired end result of the animal rights advocates is for every person to think like them. A better life for animals being a by-product of that result, and it is no big loss to animal rights advocates if that by-product does not actually come to pass.
That explains the “validation” part of my conclusion. But why do animal rights group engage in a cultural conquest? They do so because, when it comes to food culture, a more legitimate way of changing people’s mind – that is, persuasion – is not available. When there is no room for persuasion, the only way to change people’s minds is to conquer them.
The Logic of Food
Food is one of the most important things in human life. Food is the means by which humans survive. Food is one of the primary ways in which humans interact with the world. Food contains more culture than any other human construct save language. Most importantly for our purpose here, food is arbitrary. The types of food available around the world are highly varied and random, depending on the accidents of weather and soil that give rise to the edible fauna and flora. Yet, because food has such a central place in human lives, humans form a very strong preference on what is no more than random variation.
If there is any universal logic to be found in food culture, it is that a given food culture only truly makes sense in the particular geographical context in which the food culture arose. Taken outside of that locale, and the food no longer makes sense. The food may still be delicious, but there is no particular reason why you should be eating it.
The geographically limited logic of food is self-evident in any place that has an endemic food culture. In France, it makes sense to drink Beaujolais Nouveau in November, because that is when that appellation is available fresh. In Japan, it makes sense to eat Mirugai sushi in spring, because trough shell clam (mirugai) is the fattest and most flavorful at that time. Take those food out of their local context, however, and the charm of Beaujolais in November or Mirugai in spring is lost. Of course, people living outside of France and Japan may also enjoy Beaujolais in November, or Mirugai in spring, and many do. But unless the Beaujolais or the Mirugai were shipped overnight from France or Japan in order to approximate the “real” thing as closely as possible, there is no particular reason why anyone outside of France or Japan should drink Beaujolais in November, and eat Mirugai in spring.
Dog meat is food. For centuries Koreans have eaten dogs, because doing so makes sense in Korea. Dogs in Korea were somewhat useful for hunting help or as home security, but for the most part, their uses other than as a source of protein were not enough to justify the food to keep them.
Dog meat may not make sense in certain parts of the world outside of Korea. In a land with many large, open pastures that require herding help, dogs may be too valuable to eat, and a taboo might develop over time. But just like the way a certain food does not make sense when taken out of its endemic geographical context, a taboo against a certain food does not make sense when taken out of its geographical context either. The taboo against dog meat imposed to Korea makes as little sense, as dog meat force-fed to a conscientious vegan. (Of course, we all know that only one of the two happens in real life.)
The Illogic of Animal Rights
If we establish that food culture – that is, what to eat and what not to eat – is illogical when taken out of its original, geographical context, it becomes clear that compelling Koreans not to eat dog meat cannot be done through persuasion, but only through an outright conquest. This is so because imposing on Korea the (clearly Western) taboo against dog meat cannot rely on the reasons that used to make sense within the geographical contexts in which those reasons were formed. Import the taboo into a new food culture, and the taboo loses all logic. When there is no room for logic, there can be no persuasion.
This, however, does not mean that dog meat abolitionists have not tried a logical approach. Typically, dog meat abolitionists would howl that culture is not a defense to everything. Then like clockwork, they will offer an example of a cultural artifact like cannibalism or human sacrifice. “If we cannot tolerate sacrifice of virgins in the name of culture,” dog meat abolitionists would argue, “how can we tolerate killing dogs to eat in the name of culture?”
This favorite argument of dog meat abolitionists depends on a critical assumption: dogs, and by extension animals, have the same value as humans. This is the same assumption that serves as the starting point for prominent animal rights theorists. And the argument of the dog meat abolitionists is wrong, because they start from the wrong assumption.
Note here that animal rights theory is not the same thing as animal welfare theory. It is a perfectly normal human impulse to be kind to an animal that provides numerous benefits to people. Again, anyone with a functioning sense of morality would find the current state of meat dogs in Korea deplorable. But caring for animals does not require the belief that animals are equivalent to humans. In fact, as shown above, such belief often works as an impediment against actually improving the lives of animals.
I do not believe I have the time or the space to have a full exposition of the animal rights theories and explain why they are wrong in every single one of their conclusions. For our purpose here, it would suffice to say that those theories begin with the idea that animals have rights, either as much as human rights or some fraction thereof, due to any number of reasons ranging from animals’ ability to feel pain or animals’ sentience. And these theories, if taken to their logical conclusions, will result in scenarios that even the most ardent animal lover would consider strange, if not appalling.
Let’s start with strange. Gary Francione of Rutgers School of Law is the first academic to teach animal rights at an American law school. Francione argues that all sentient beings – which include mammals, fish, birds and perhaps insects – have a right not to be owned as property. This does not simply mean that in Francione’s ideal world, everyone will be vegan. It also means that we will have absolutely no ownership or control over any animal, not even as pets or guide dogs for the blind. Given that most animal rights advocates begin as pet owners (Francione’s Wikipedia page shows a picture of him with his pet dogs,) this is a strange position.
Now, the appalling. Tom Beauchamp, a prominent bioethics professor at Georgetown University, offered a “thesis” that “because many humans lack the properties of personhood or are less than full persons, they are thereby rendered equal or inferior in moral standing to some non-humans. If this conclusion is defensible, we will need to rethink our traditional view that these unlucky humans cannot be treated in the ways we treat relevantly similar non-humans. For example, they might be aggressively used as human research subjects and sources of organs.” (Beauchamp, The Failure of Theories of Personhood, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, vol. 9, no. 4, Dec. 1999 at 324).
And this time, both appalling and strange. Peter Singer (technically not an animal rights theorist, but monumentally important in that field), infamously claimed that newborn human infants or the cognitively disabled humans are not persons, while “whales, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, seals, bears, cattle, sheep, and so on” may be persons. (Singer, Practical Ethics, 2d ed. at 132). This is so because Singer redefined a “person” as anything that has “rationality and self consciousness.” (Id. at 87). This definition made Singer disqualify his own mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, from personhood. A profile of Singer that preceded an interview on Reason magazine reads: “Singer's mother suffers from severe Alzheimer's disease, and so she no longer qualifies as a person by his own standards, yet he spends considerable sums on her care. . . . When I asked him about it during our interview at his Manhattan apartment in late July, he sighed and explained that he is not the only person who is involved in making decisions about his mother (he has a sister). He did say that if he were solely responsible, his mother might not be alive today.”
In another notorious instance, Singer wrote approvingly of humans having sex with animals. In a review of a book chronicling the history of bestiality, Singer did not simply review the interesting aspects of the book. Rather, he went into a full-throated defense of bestiality: “We copulate, as they do. They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are." This bizarre stance horrified even the staunchest of Singer’s intellectual peers. Tom Regan, also a major figure in animal rights theories, criticized Singer that by the same logic, one can defend pedophilia as well.
Note that even if someone were to backtrack slightly from these theorists and argue that animal rights are only a fraction of human rights (but large enough of a fraction such that animals do not deserve to be eaten,) the nuttiness of the claim does not change. That is simply moving from the proposition that killing one human is equal to killing one dog, to the proposition that killing one human is equal to killing a hundred dogs. They are equally indefensible, because all of the absurdity outlined above remain just as absurd after the retreat.
To bring the point more specific to our discussion: dogs have no rights, because animals have no rights. To be sure, we humans may look out for dogs’ welfare and treat them with kindness. Again, nobody in Korea, except animal rights organizations, opposed a more humane meat dog raising process. But being kind to dogs does not require giving them any rights, particularly if doing so would lead to giving up all of our pets, harvesting organs of a cognitively disabled person, euthanizing your own mother or having sex with animals.
The Many Lies of the Cultural Conquistadors
If there is no room for logic in the course of attempting to change Koreans’ minds about dog meat eating, dog meat abolitionists must necessarily rely on bald assertions of cultural superiority. But such assertions do not sell. Therefore, dog meat abolitionists rely on the age-old tactic by invading imperialists – couching their claims of superiority in the lies and half-truths designed to depict natives as uncivilized savages.
Which, finally, brings us to the Busan Haps article penned by Ms. Frankie Herrington. All the symptoms of a typical dog meat abolitionist are well-represented in this article. Refusal to consider amending the Livestock Processing Act? (“Animal welfare groups are against regulation as well, as it is unlikely to improve conditions for dogs, only improve the conditions for people. Recall the government's culling of 1.4 million pigs by burying them alive in March 2011 for fear of disease transmission?”) Check. Equating killing a person with killing a dog? (“ It was once tradition to sacrifice young female slaves to the Slavic god of war.”) Check. Bald statement of cultural superiority? (“Should we not also show compassion to an animal that has long been regarded as ‘man’s best friend?’” – gee, which part of the world has long regarded dogs as “man’s best friend”?) Check, check, check please.
But the most striking part of Ms. Herrington’s article is the exquisite collection of lies, distortion and half-truths about dog meat consumption in Korea. Ms. Herrington could have built a very strong case against dog meat simply by limiting herself to recounting the deplorable living conditions of dogs raised for meat, and arguing that eating dog meat encourages these conditions. Instead, however, Ms. Herrington chose to throw in every single lie, distortion and half-truth that has been thrown in the history of dog meat debate so far, in order to denigrate people who eat dog meat. I will address those falsehoods by category.
First, the “health benefit and virility” point. Discussing the reasons why Korean people eat dogs, Ms. Herrington led off with the claim that Koreans have traditionally eaten dogs because of supposed health benefits – that is, enhancing virility in men. Ms. Herrington then cited classic Korean medicine books from the 16th and 17th century.
File this under “half-truth,” because Ms. Herrington did not bother to talk about what the rest of the books say. Following the Eastern medicine tradition, Koreans traditionally regarded every single food to be medicinal, affecting their health in some form or another. In other words, every single food ingredient traditionally available in Korea comes with some kind of health benefit. According to Dongeuibogam, one of the books that Ms. Herrington cites, garlic is supposed to warm the stomach and cure bug bites. The book also says that eels are good for curing venereal disease.
Koreans eat dog meat for the same reason anyone eats anything – dog meat tastes good, and it provides sustenance. There are tons of other traditional food ingredients that are extolled for their health benefits, but rarely eaten in modern Korea. For example, many Korean folk stories extol the virtues of carp, a winter fish that magically cures an ailing patient in the cold. But one is hard-pressed to find any restaurant in Korea that sells carp, because carp tastes terrible. Regardless, Ms. Herrington would have you believe that Koreans who eat dog meat do so to enhance their virility. By that logic, she may as well also argue that Koreans put garlic in kimchi to cure bug bites, or everyone who visits an eel restaurant in Korea suffers from the not-so-fresh feeling down there.
Second, the “illegal meat” point. Ms. Herrington wrote: “the law does not recognize dogs as a legitimate food[.]” This is a straight lie. Korean law recognizes dogs as a legitimate food. Dog meat restaurants receive governmental permits to open their business and stay open, just like any other restaurant. Dog meat restaurant pays taxes, just like any other restaurant. (In fact, the National Tax Board of Korea issued a specific opinion that, for a restaurant’s tax purposes, the expense of purchasing dog meat is treated exactly the same as the expense of purchasing any other meat or food ingredient.) Korean courts have ruled that slaughtering a dog for the purpose of eating does not violate the Animal Protection Act. (It is, however, against the Animal Protection Act to kill a dog in a cruel manner in public, even for the purpose of eating.) As discussed above, local governments may conduct limited hygiene inspection on dog meat restaurants pursuant to Food Hygiene Act, which defines “food” as “all foodstuff, except taken as medicine.”
Dog meat abolitionists argue that dog meat is illegal because dog meat is not regulated by the Livestock Processing Act. But that hardly means that dog meat is illegal or illegitimate; that just means that Livestock Processing Act does not regulate the processing of dog meat. For example, Livestock Processing Act does not regulate the processing of ostrich meat, as ostrich was not included in the definition of “livestock.” (Which makes sense, because virtually no Korean raises or eats ostrich.) That does not mean that no one in Korea can legally eat ostrich meat. Basic principles of liberal democracy dictates that what is not prohibited by law is allowed. Therefore, no law stops anyone in Korea from having an ostrich burger.
Further, it is rather funny to hear dog meat abolitionists argue that eating dog meat is illegal, when they themselves are responsible for ensuring that dog meat was not covered by the Livestock Processing Act.
Third, the “cruel slaughter” point, which works in conjunction with “health benefits” point. Ms. Herrington quotes Park So-Yeon, director of CARE: “Death is deliberately slow due to the belief that torture improves the taste and “health” benefits of the meat. The typical method of slaughter is electrocution, which takes from 30 seconds to 3 minutes until the dog dies, beatings before and during slaughter, being burned with a blow-torch, boiled alive and bled out. The ‘old-fashion’ [sic] way involves hanging taking up to seven minutes.”
This is a distortion that is easily exposed by basic logic. We already established that Koreans do not primarily eat dog meat for health benefits. What makes the living conditions of meat dogs brutal is unchecked economics, not some sadistic desire for dubious health benefits. Because dog farms are unregulated by the Livestock Processing Act, they are free to treat the dogs in the most convenient and cost-efficient manner possible, without regard to the dogs’ welfare. Hence, the dogs live in tiny cages and in unclean conditions.
But such economics-driven behavior would counsel against slow torture of the dogs. Why would a profit-driven dog farmer or a dog meat merchant spend the time and energy to hang and beat a dog, when electrocution effortlessly brings about a swift death? While there is no official survey on this topic, a quick visit to any dog meat market – something that I am sure Ms. Herrington has never done – usually confirms this point. The fact that there is no dog meat restaurant that specifically touts its specialty of slowly tortured dog meat – which, if the director of CARE is to be believed, would provide a competitive advantage to dog meat restaurants – further confirms that vast majority of meat dogs meet a quick death.
Are there any dogs in Korea today that meet a brutal, beating death by people who covet its meat for sexual enhancement? Because the superstition is still alive in some small corners of Korea, I am certain that there is greater than zero number of dogs that meet such unfortunate death. But are such cases the norm, or even a significant minority? Economic logic and firsthand observations say no. Dog meat merchants may not give a whiff about meat dogs’ welfare, but they are not deliberate sadists who would go out of their way to cause pain.
More importantly, it is not as if dog meat abolitionists care. Just as the revised Livestock Processing Act could have prevented cruel treatment of meat dogs in their lives, the law could have also ensured that the means of slaughtering meat dogs are quick, painless and humane. But dog meat abolitionists actively opposed revising the Livestock Processing Act.
Finally, Ms. Herrington’s lack of even the most basic intellectual rigor. I do not wish to make this overly personal, so I will simply note a few things and move on. Ms. Herrington does not cite a single statistic that comes outside of animal rights groups; she relies on a newspaper that regularly reports about UFO discovery taken from an American tabloid; she states that dog meat restaurants are not taxed, although the National Tax Board opinion cited above clearly shows otherwise; she takes a quote from a dog meat restaurant owner and twists it completely out of context, to make a claim that “[t]he industry is of course against regulation” (please read the full article and see if such inference can be supported); and, most hilariously, she cites a study purportedly conducted by Dr. Irwin Putzkoff, “Schmuckintush professor of nutritional physiology,” whose Google search result looks like this. As one of the most visible advocates of dog meat eating in the English-language Internet – Google “why Koreans eat dog” and see for yourself – I can personally attest that Ms. Herrington’s reliance on partisan data and dubious sources is quite typical of dog meat abolitionists.
The Imperialism and Cultural Conquest in Dog Meat Abolition Movement
What do all these lies by dog meat abolitionists accomplish? Cumulatively, they paint a picture of the evil dog eater that any civilized person would find repulsive: a lawless savage who engages in a sadistic ritual and eats dirty meat, just to get his dick up. The message that Ms. Herrington and other dog meat abolitionists wish to deliver is clear: Koreans who eat dogs are uncivilized and culturally inferior.
Lawlessness. Sadistic rituals. Dirty meat. Hyper-sexuality. It is not a coincidence that these are the standard image for any native person encountered by invading imperialists of the 19th and 20th century. Imperialism of the 19th and 20th century is fundamentally different from the series of wars and conquests that preceded it in human history, in that imperialism was much more than a simple struggle for more land and wealth. What motivated imperialism was a genuine belief of cultural superiority. The more developed countries, imperialists argued, were so because they possessed superior cultures. Therefore, the more developed countries had a moral obligation to educate and enlighten the benighted savages, who needed to be cured of their animal impulse that led to their barbaric behaviors. A triumph of imperialism required much more than the control over territory and wealth; it required a thorough cultural conquest.
Dog meat abolitionists operate on exactly the same premise. Dog meat abolitionists genuinely believe that their arbitrary culture – of not eating dogs – is superior to the alternative. They also believe that they have a moral obligation to cure the benighted people who still eat dogs. A triumph for dog meat abolitionists also require a thorough cultural conquest over the practice of eating dogs. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise to see that dog meat abolitionists employ the same kinds of lies, distortions and half-truths as imperialists did, to paint the same, repulsive picture of a person whom they are supposed to enlighten.
Dog meat abolitionists – particularly non-Korean ones – are fully aware of the imperialistic undertone of their end goal and the strategy they employ to achieve it. Thus, to dispel the stench of cultural conquest, they usually point out that a portion of Koreans are also opposed to dog meat eating. (Ms. Herrington begins her piece by redundantly claiming that “[i]ncreasingly, more and more Koreans” are opposed to dog meat.) But the fact that some Koreans are also dog meat abolitionists does not diminish the cultural imperialism innate in the dog meat abolition movement. Rather, the fact that some Koreans are also dog meat abolitionists confirms the imperialism in the movement, for no imperialism in the history of humankind occurred without the cooperation by some portion of the native population. In the history of imperialism, no conquered population stood in complete unity to resist the invading horde. At least a few in the native population stood to gain from the new world order to be imposed by the imperialists, and those few, without fail, had provided to the imperialists active assistance, without which conquest was all but impossible.
This dynamic is quite evident in the imperialistic conquest regarding dog meat as well. The prize for the local population who opposes dog meat consumption is the same as the prize for non-Korean dog meat abolitionists – the claim of cultural superiority. It must be noted that animal rights movement in Korea came to being around the beginning of 2000s, as pet ownership in Korea reached critical mass. (Both CARE and KARA were established in 2002.) Pet ownership in Korea (that is, the kind that resembles Western pet ownership) is still very much a status marker for middle-to-upper middle-class Koreans. A vast majority of Koreans live in smallish high-rise apartments, such that in general, only a wealthy family who can afford a house with a lawn in the middle of the city, or an upper-middle class who can afford a large apartment, can afford to own pets. (And even in those cases, the pets are usually limited to handbag-sized lap dogs.)
This rise in pet ownership in Korea coincides with the changes in Korea’s food culture. Korea rose from the rubbles of the Korean War and the desperate poverty of the 1960s. As Korea became wealthier, the rising Korean middle class sought new and different kinds of food that would mark their superior class status to those around them. In the late 1980s, those foods were hamburgers from McDonald’s and pizza from Pizza Hut. In the 1990s, rare-cooked steaks served in American-style family restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s and Bennigan’s. In the 2000s, pastas and wine.
As a side note, just in case people are incredulous as to just how big of a status marker McDonald’s was: I grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Seoul that saw the first McDonald’s in Korea, opened in 1988. That McDonald’s had a special birthday party area in the back, which only the richest families of the neighborhood could afford to rent. The lucky birthday boy who had a party there got to have the amazing opportunity to tour all the McDonald’s facilities, meat lockers and all. The highlight of the experience was cooking your own cheeseburger. For a young Korean child in late 1980s, being able to flip burgers at McDonald’s was a privilege reserved for the 1 percent.)
But when it comes to food culture, rising tide does raise all boats. Eventually, the food that was only available to the wealthy became more generally available to everyone in Korea. In the 2010s, the emerging new status marker in Korean food culture is vegetarianism. Because status-seekers are running out of new food to eat, they have now turned to not eating certain food as status markers. In this backdrop, it is not a surprise that the anti-dog meat movement in Korea is gaining speed. Previously, food as a status marker only signaled more worldly sophistication. But by introducing morality into food, the psychic benefit of opposing dog meat doubles. By not eating dog meat, or any meat for that matter, you can signal to other Koreans that you are not only aesthetically superior, but morally superior as well.
Therefore, these wealthy, pet-owning, status-seeking Koreans are quite happy to join the non-Korean cultural imperialists. After all, those two share the same goal – proving the world of their cultural superiority. Together, they blithely proceed with their cultural conquest, by fraudulently painting the opposition as savages, all the while actively getting in the way of actually improving the lives of meat dogs in Korea.
Why Koreans Continue to Support Dog Meat
But the problem for these cultural imperialists is that their falsehoods, and the insults implied therein, are quite clear to most Koreans. Painting dog-eating Koreans as savages might work for people outside of Korea who only pay a glancing attention to this issue. Most Koreans, however, including even those who do not eat dog meat, rightly recognize such characterizations as slanderous.
In July 2008, during the height of animal rights organizations’ protest against Seoul city’s hygiene inspections of dog meat, a professional polling company conducted a survey about whether Koreans agreed with “legalizing dog meat.” This represents the most recent survey on this topic conducted by an unbiased professional organization, unlike the many distorted surveys put out by Korea’s animal rights groups. And in that survey, a solid majority -- 53.2 percent -- said “yes” to “legalizing dog meat.” 25.3 percent said “no,” and 21.6 percent replied “I don’t know.”
53.2 percent might not sound like a commanding lead, but it is actually quite impressive in a number of ways. First of all, the question of the poll was misleadingly skewed toward an unfavorable result for dog meat. As discussed above, dog meat in Korea is perfectly legal; therefore, there is nothing to “legalize.” If the survey was phrased in a more accurate manner – say, “do you agree with treating meat dogs as livestock?” – it is highly likely that a substantial portion of the 21.6 percent who replied “I don’t know” would turn toward “yes.”
Second of all, the highest proportion of “yes” came from Koreans in their 20s at 62.9 percent. This is an interesting result, given that Koreans in their 20s are the least likely among all ages to have tried dog meat. In a survey conducted in 2006, only 46.1 percent of Koreans in their 20s ever tried dog meat. In other words, even as younger Koreans eat less dog meat, they have a stronger sense that people should have a right to be let alone in their food choices.
Finally, the result is astoundingly impressive given the historical willingness for Koreans to adopt other arbitrary elements of Western culture and ditch their own at the drop of a hat. There was no particular reason why Koreans had to stop wearing their traditional clothes in favor of Western-style clothing, but now the hanbok is relegated to being a holiday gear. The Korean language is quite sufficient to express everything, but Koreans liberally mix in English words in storefronts, literature and everyday conversation. Most Koreans are born with no epicanthic fold on their eyelids, but numerous Koreans receive plastic surgery on their eyelids in order to approximate the Western round eyes. And all of this happened without anyone – except perhaps indirectly – telling Koreans what to do. In contrast, dog meat in Korea has been under assault for more than 20 years, with the attacks intensity increasing each year. Yet, dog meat in Korea endures, and if the opinion of young Koreans in their 20s is any indication, dog meat in Korea is here to stay.
Why do majority of Koreans continue to support dog meat? They do because they recognize that the dog meat-eating Koreans are nothing like the barbaric savages portrayed by animal rights groups. Here is a picture of a dog meat eater: me. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve dog meat. My grandfather was a fan of the dish. On some holidays, the whole family would get together and head out for the outskirts of my father’s hometown. We would gather at a restaurant that would be attached to a dog farm. Even as a child, I recognized that the dogs in the farm, woofing while locked up in tiny cages, were not a pleasant sight. But getting together with family to share a warm, hearty meal – that would be considered happiness in any culture, not savagery.
As an adult, I am nothing like the typical caricature of a dog meat eater painted by dog meat abolitionists. I am young and I traveled the world extensively. (In fact, now I live in America, a decidedly dog-meat-averse country.) If I may dare say it, I am highly educated and have a sophisticated understanding of the world. I like animals. I currently have a pet cat, and I often pet-sit my friends’ dogs. I eat meat, but sparingly so, as I still keep to a Korean diet for the most part. I care about the deplorable conditions of factory-farmed animals enough to buy free-range meat whenever I can for my own cooking. But like many people, I am not a stickler about where my meat came from when I eat at a restaurant.
I continue to eat dog meat (when I am in Korea, that is,) not only because of the good memories, but also the merits of the food itself. It is strange that the talk about the taste of dog meat is totally absent in the debate about dog meat consumption, a matter of taste. To put it simply: it’s delicious. Properly prepared, it is one of the best meats I have ever tasted. The meat is slightly gamy, leaner than beef, more textured than pork, and more supple than mutton. I do not wish to force-feed anyone, but I do recommend trying it at least once if you are visiting Korea. After all, isn’t broadening one’s horizons the whole point travelling?
Just as much as I care about the terrible conditions of the animals in American factory farms, I care about the revolting conditions of the dogs in the dog farms of Korea. If I can’t have free-range dog meat, at least I want those dogs to be treated as humanely as other livestock in Korea. In this preference, I am hardly alone among Korean dog meat eaters. Despite what animal rights organizations might have you believe, dog meat eaters of Korea are not some kind of sadist monsters. They are regular people who choose to eat a particular food for all the regular reasons – habit, memories, flavor, etc. It is telling that, in 2008, not a single dog meat eater protested Seoul city’s decision to recommend the amendment of Livestock Processing Act. If we remember who blocked Seoul city from even attempting to amend the law that would surely have improved the lives of thousands of dogs in Korea, we have to wonder who the real sadistic monsters were in that shameful chapter of the history of Korea and dog meat.
The Korean is a Washington DC-based lawyer and author of the popular blog Ask a Korean. The Korean refers to himself in the third person because he thinks it sounds cool. He has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and numerous publications around the world.
You can check out Haps 5 questions with the Korean here.
The opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Haps Magazine.