As the world focuses on Pyeonchang for this month’s 2018 Winter Olympics, Korea has a repulsive secret – the 2 million dogs bred to be eaten in restaurants that tourists visit. Nick Harding reports
Warning: Contains Graphic Content and Photographs
Yelps and whimpers echo from metal cages. The dogs crammed inside are packed so tightly they cannot move. A man in a rubber apron shoves an electric cattle prod through the bars and zaps a terrified animal. From a filthy pen, a large dog is dragged with a choker, clubbed in the face with a truncheon, electrocuted, and stabbed in the neck. After agonising minutes, the animal, still alive, tries to get up. It is bludgeoned until it dies. The cruelty is unbearable.
This is Korea’s dirty little secret. These are the images the Olympic Winter Games host does not want you to see and has quietly been trying to cover up. Across the country there are an estimated 2.5 million dogs kept in unimaginable conditions on 17,000 farms. These wretched, terrified animals are destined to end up in restaurants and health food shops catering for some of the tourists visiting the nation for this month’s Games.
On The Menu
And while officials have tried a secretive operation to hide the practice by bribing restaurants to change their signs and remove dog from their menus for the duration of the event, their ruse has not worked. Animal welfare activists say that unwitting visitors have no doubt stumbled across restaurants where dog is the dish of the day, and in some cases, they’ve even been served it.
Animal welfare activists say that unwitting visitors to the Games have no doubt stumbled across restaurants where dog is the dish of the day, and in some cases, they’ve even been served it
Julia de Cadenet is a British lawyer who runs one of several anti-dog meat pressure groups. ‘During the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games the government closed all the dog meat restaurants,’ she says. ‘They opened again soon after. The campaign to hide the practice has been far subtler this time. Officials have tried to convince restaurants to change signage in exchange for grants, but although some signs have changed, generally it hasn’t happened. The menus are in Korean and many tourists are unwittingly eating dog meat. It comes as part of many dishes.’
Anticipating international revulsion, last year, more than 40 restaurants in the host cities of Pyeongchang and Gangneung were offered up to £6,600 each to change signage and interior décor which advertised dog meat dishes in an initiative officials called ‘Restaurants that evoke negative emotions from the foreigners’. Businesses which signed up removed references to Boshintang, Sacheoltang, Yeongyangtang, Yeongyangwon, which are all names for dog meat soup. But the project was shelved after an outcry from animal welfare groups, who argued that it did nothing to address the cruelty underpinning the dog meat trade. Instead, they called for a boycott of the Games and have launched campaigns to shame sponsors associated with it, such as Samsung, Kia, Hyndai and LG.
A report by Korean Animal Rights Advocate (KARA) surmised: ‘The government has routinely responded with stop-gap measures such as taking down signs rather than resolving the underlying problem of the dog meat industry itself.’
Dog Meat Market
Officials also tried another PR stunt by closing Korea’s biggest dog meat market. Moran market in the Seongnam district of Seoul sold more than 80,000 dogs, dead and alive, each year. Many were slaughtered and butchered in clear view of the public, either by hanging, beating or electrocution. But witnesses say the practice still goes on.
Activist Janet Woo from Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth, explains: ‘They still sell dog meat at the market and there are two places that still slaughter dogs in Moran. Live dogs are not displayed to be seen from outside, but they kept are in cages in the store.’
And plans to use a dog mascot for the Games, which opened on 9 February and close on the 25th, were also quietly shelved when Olympic officials in Korea realised what a PR gaff the choice of species would be. Instead they picked a tiger.
Meat dogs — which are classified as livestock in Korea and are not protected by laws that cover the welfare of pet dogs — are kept on unregulated farms in remote areas where they are raised by breeders in appalling conditions and then slaughtered or transported in cramped crates to butchers. The shocking scale of brutality is evident in footage from undercover investigations.
Retired professor Nami Kim runs Save Korean Dogs and has closed several large-scale farms. She runs a shelter in South Korea and has rehomed almost 1300 rescued dogs. She tracks downs farms which operate without licences and persuades restaurants to stop cooking dog by offering financial inducements.
The horror she has witnessed has left a permanent mark.
‘I have seen so much suffering, I am traumatised,’ she says.
The brave 61-year-old lives near the heavily fortified border with North Korea and receives regular death threats from disgruntled dog farmers.
She says: ‘The pro-meat lobby is like a mafia. I get messages from them, they are normally sent from China because it is harder to trace or prosecute if it comes from foreign servers. The emails say things like “I am going to slaughter you the way I slaughter a dog. I am going to dismember you if you don’t stop”. I am not scared, I don’t care about these guys, I ignore them and block them. What I see and what I hear makes me try to save as many dogs as I can and fight as much as I can.’
Bizarrely, in a country where one in four people own pet dogs, the dog meat lobby argues that meat dogs are completely different animals from pet dogs.
‘They say meat dogs are bred to be eaten and that they are different from pet dogs,’ Nami sighs. ‘I have a puppy from a rescued meat dog that is now being trained in the US as a therapy dog. How can you make a distinction and say that one is a meat dog, but this one is helping people? They are the same.’
Ginny Woo is another activist. She is based in California and her organisation, Korean Dogs, works closely with Nami.
‘It is likely that the visitors or competitors to the Games will see dog meat restaurants, as these are located throughout the country,’ she says. ‘Large scale dog farms and slaughterhouses are usually located in more remote places. Many are hidden behind walls and fences, some with heavy security systems. Visitors venturing out to the neighbourhoods or to the countryside might see small backyard breeders breeding dogs to eat or to sell at the market for meat.’
Dog meat is popular with older Koreans and is consumed traditionally on the hottest days of the year because it is believed to cool the body. It is also used to make a tonic that people believe increases male libido. While the number of restaurants has declined over the years, the powerful dog meat trade is making efforts to attract a younger generation of dog eaters.
Brit Julia, who has rehomed rescued dogs with UK families, explains: ‘There are young people in Korea who will eat dog. A lot of the restaurants that served it were old-fashioned, but if you go to the Gangnam district in Seoul, there are new modern restaurants that are designed to encourage young people to go there.’
Restaurants and suppliers are also upping their attempts to give dog eaters more choice.
Nami, who has offered to show any athlete or visitor to the Games the true face of the dog meat trade, explains: ‘Right now the price for a bowl of dog meat soup is around £7, in some of the exclusive residential areas its nearer £8. Some of the restaurant owners tell me they use imported frozen dog meat from China for the regular dishes. But they also serve locally supplied ‘fresh’ meat which is sold as a premium option for £10.’
Sadly, for the dogs suffering in Korea’s meat farms, there is little hope that the government will intervene to stop their torture. In September last year, the Seoul High Court affirmed a ruling that electrocution as a dog slaughter method does not constitute cruelty. Meanwhile just one city – Bucheon – has responded to an international call for regions to become dog meat-free.
Ginny says: ‘The Korean government seems to be clueless as to why we are asking them to stop eating dogs. They don’t seem to be in any hurry to bring an end to the trade. When President Moon Jae-In took office last May, we were hopeful that he would finally bring an end this horrible cruelty because he made campaign promises that he would improve the welfare of animals. However, we have yet to hear anything from him about this issue.’
During the Games visitors and athletes are being advised by welfare groups to be careful in restaurants. While much of the labelling is confusing for non-Koreans, Nami explains that there is one distinct giveaway that dog is on the menu.
‘Dog meat has to be boiled for a minimum of four hours with lots of herbs because the meat is very tough and pungent. Whenever I go in a restaurant to negotiate with the owner, I vomit because it smells so bad,’ she warns.