The dog meat association is currently winning the war on dog meat as demand surges around boknal (the hottest days of summer).
Today is boknal, a day traditionally associated with consuming dog meat to abate the heat and restore vitality. While activists mourn it, dog meat merchants celebrate it due to the profits yielded from a spike in demand. But this year is slightly different.
Rumor has it that dog meat is in decline; a rumor now supported by statistics.
A survey in 2016 by Han Gil Research Institute revealed that 73 percent of the South Korean population had not eaten dog meat in the past year. The same survey suggests that 37 percent are in favor of the dog meat trade whereas 44 percent are against it and 19 percent are neutral.
Chief researcher of livestock for parliament Yoo Jae-bum said lawmakers could pass a law to ban the dog meat industry but are not considering it at this stage. “A considerable number of people are against eating dog meat because they are aware of problems of factory farming systems. On the other hand, there are voices calling for the legalization of the industry.”
Yoo said the government needs to balance freedom of economic activity against the happiness of activists and dogs when considering legislation changes on dog meat. “Banning dog meat eating is not easy since the two parties rights are in conflict. If we legalize eating dog meat it will harm Korea’s national image, which can cause diplomatic or trade-related problems,” he said. “If Korea cannot receive a substantial benefit or improve national interests from legalizing dog meat, then we should not consider legalizing it.”
“However, as mentioned before, regulating the industry is a violation of basic rights and freedom of economic activities,” he added.
The Korean government’s neutral stance maintains a status quo, which currently favors the dog meat association at the expense of dog welfare. Animal welfare groups allege that around two million dogs are raised in small cages, fed only ground up waste-food, and then electrocuted to death at 15 to 17 months of age. They are never given any water, love or attention with farmers providing all veterinary care to the dogs.
The public is becoming more aware of the poor conditions on many dog farms, which is affecting demand. Consequently, the dog meat association is regulating supply and fixing the price of dog meat to maintain profit margins.
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Association leaders at internal meetings in 2016 requested that farmers produce 10 percent fewer dogs than in previous years so they do not oversupply the market and push prices down. They hope this will help maintain prices and profit margins until they can get the trade formally legalized.
This feeds into the dog meat association’s plan to reinvigorate the dog meat industry and increase supply. “Just like beef and pork (industries) you will see more enterprise-class farms,” secretary general Choi Young-In said during the filming of a documentary titled, The Dog Meat Professionals. “Korean pork and beef products have been advertised on TV. When the advertisement appears on TV, saying the products are good for your health, the industry will boom,” he added.
Under current law, TV networks will not accept dog meat advertisements but the dog meat association is hoping to change that. “The industry will continue to decline unless the government registers dogs as livestock in the Sanitary Livestock Products Sanitary Control Act or the Livestock Products Processing Act,” secretary general Choi said.
In a bid to convince legislators to legalize dog meat, association leaders are staging pro-dog meat rallies all over South Korea, which often attract between 500 to 1,000 members.
Despite meeting with several politicians, the association has been protesting that they are not considered in the same way as pigs or cattle under the law. “The ministry of Agriculture is neglecting us. Disband it!” a dog meat association leader screamed through a megaphone at a pro-dog meat march in 2016. Several hundred pro-dog meat protesters then screamed, “Disband it,” in unison while marching past the government office. Another leader screamed from a podium that they are gathering to get politicians to legalize dog meat. “We will fight for the legalization of dog meat until the end. Let’s raise our voice until it reaches the central government and parliament,” he said.
The show of force being exerted by the dog meat association is not being matched by activists, who are limited in numbers. It is rare for more than several dozen activists to protest together, which limits their efficacy. Most groups work independently and each achieves their own successes.
Some Korean animal welfare groups, notably CARE, GAON, Save Korean Dogs, and sometimes KARA, have attacked supply chains by visiting farms or auction houses, filming their activities, and reporting them to authorities.
In a few rare cases, animal welfare organizations have succeeded in getting rogue dog meat merchants prosecuted. CARE’s investigations led to two slaughterhouses that hanged dogs being shut down in Incheon. GAON got authorities to issue summonses to slaughterhouse owners at Gyeongdong market, resulting in fines ranging from 750,000 won (US$700) to 1 million won ($US 1,000). The constant pressure from GAON also forced one slaughterhouse to shut its doors for good. In this sense, direct action has been effective at disrupting supply in a small way.
Although activists may not recognize it, prosecutions such as these represent social and judicial progress. Despite this, activists like BK Zhang allege politicians and the Department of Agriculture often disregard animal welfare activists. “The animal rights groups cannot voice their viewpoints because the officials skip what they do not want to discuss,” Zhang said. “They say, ‘Let’s leave out this issue today’ and those issues are cut.”
Senior journalist Philip Iglauer said that the political stalemate is likely to continue given that activists are pushing for a dog meat ban and the dog meat association is pushing for legalization. “Those two things put together mean that politicians are going to respond to the voters and to money, to the contributions,” Iglauer said. “Because you have a stalemate between two opposing forces, what will democratically elected officials do? Nothing! That is the easiest response for them right now,” he added.
Activists, like Saemi Han, have had enough and are trying new far more extreme ways to encourage political involvement. Han and her associates encroached upon congressman Jin Yeong’s office in 2016 and aggressively insisted he immediately adopt a rescue dog that they brought to his office.
Jin objected and cited that their approach was “wrong” and that politicians are slowly progressing animal rights issues. “We now have animal welfare laws. Lawmakers launched the animal welfare forum but why do you keep criticizing us?” Jin said. “It takes 20 or 30 years to enact a law,” he said before citing that it took several decades to end the slave trade. For activists like Han, 20 years is far too long given that an estimated 2 million dogs are being killed each year in South Korea.
When other politicians were approached by organizations, they stated off the record that it is not within their interests to discuss dog meat until more than half of the voting population wants the industry banned. For this discussion to occur, the “undecided” 19 percent of the population in South Korea needs to be swayed in favor of outlawing dog meat.
Movies such as Okja or The Dog Meat Professionals help reinforce public opinion against the dog meat trade, but most of the public does not get involved in activism. Zhang said activists need assistance from the silent, voting majority for real change to occur. “If there are only the groups who are anti-dog meat raising their voices, the dog meat industry is going to further commercialize and become huge,” Zhang added. “To develop content for anti-dog meat campaigns, professionals, researchers, and environmentalists must get money and come up with a project that defines why dog meat is bad for human consumption,” Zhang said.
On the contrary, the dog meat association members are successfully promoting dog meat as a health food. Demand is also at risk of increasing with restaurants modernizing to appeal to youth and females, which is working in Gangnam and Digital Media City. The dog meat association has also successfully negotiated farming concessions with governments and local councils, saving dog farmers thousands in costs in some instances.
Dog meat association leaders have also started to assist at dog meat merchant rallies in an attempt to protect the supply chain. Around 400 dog meat sellers protested last week in Jongno, Seoul, requesting more consideration from activists. “Animal rights activists are saying we are abusing animals and are calling for the complete criminalization of eating dog meat, which would destroy our businesses,” a group leader said. “The claim is beyond inconsiderate given that our livelihoods depend on it. We will go bankrupt and become jobless. Do they have a plan for us?” he asked.
Most activists do not have a detailed plan on how to end the dog meat industry or how to transition workers into new trades despite repeatedly demanding the dog meat trade be outlawed. However, animal activists are optimistic that the new president, Moon Jae-In, will initiate change in animal welfare regulation that will lead to dog meat being phased out.
President Moon has policies to improve conditions for dogs and cats in South Korea, including promoting the adoption of animals, to initiate and expand Trap Neuter & Release programs for strays, to examine veterinarian costs for healthcare, to construct community pet parks, and to tighten regulations. However, President Moon does not yet have a specific policy on the dog meat trade.
Guest Author: James Hyams
James Hyams is a journalist who co-produced an investigative exposé on the dog meat industry titled, The Dog Meat Professionals, and has just published a book titled, The Dog Meat Professionals: Investigating the South Korean dog meat trade available on Amazon.