Criticism surrounding the consumption of dog meat has grown as more South Koreans adopt canine pets: About 27 percent of South Korean homes have pets, with the majority of them being dogs — up from 17 percent in 2010 — according to the agriculture ministry. (About half of American households reported having pets in 2018, according to the Census Bureau and Simmons National Consumer Study.)
Activists such as Yoon-jeong Choi say the government’s move is long overdue. “There is no social debate about this issue anymore,” said Choi, who works with the Korea Animal Rights Advocates. “Demand for dog meat has plummeted with generational changes, and only a small number of people still view dogs as something to consume.”
The consumption of dogs in South Korea is a centuries-old practice that was more common decades ago, when the country had fewer alternatives for meat. The practice first ran into international criticism in 1988, when South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics.
Parts of China, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand have already banned the practice, though an estimated 30 million dogs are still killed each year on the continent, according to the Humane Society International, an animal rights group based in the United States.
President Moon — a known dog lover who advocated for better treatment of animals on the campaign trail four years ago — has been reluctant to end the dog meat trade. In 2018, in response to a public petition asking for better treatment of dogs, his administration declined to criminalize the practice of eating canine meat, citing the livelihoods of restaurateurs involved in the dog-meat business.
Now in the last year of his nonrenewable five-year term, the South Korean leader appears to have had a change of heart. After listening to his deputy talk about the country’s canine welfare policies, the president asked if it might be time for the country to consider banning the consumption of dog meat, according to his office.
The president’s announcement has irked the dwindling number of citizens who rely on the trade for their living, and those who question the logic of outlawing only canine meat: If dogs shouldn’t be killed, they ask, shouldn’t cows and pigs be exempt from slaughter, too?
Lee Gil-soon is a 65-year-old in Seoul who has made her living selling dog meat at her restaurant with her husband for three decades. To her, South Korea’s potential move toward banning dog meat consumption is a financial death sentence. Sales were already dropping before the pandemic, she said. Since the pandemic hit, sales have halved.
“I can barely pay my rent,” she said. Lee said that if shops like hers are forced to close, she’d need a payout to help her sustain her living. “Look, I know dogs are beautiful. I owned one, too,” she said. “But I need a way to make a living,” she said.
Lee also said it wouldn’t be fair to ban dog meat alone. About 15 years ago, she said, she stopped eating beef for a year after she saw a cow shedding tears as it was led to the slaughterhouse. “How come cows and pigs can be eaten and dogs can’t?”
In fact, many people in South Korea have resented the West’s fixation on the issue, arguing that the dog meat industry is no worse than factory farming or eating other animals.
Choi, the activist, said dog farmers and restaurant owners often feel trapped in a rapidly dying industry.
“The dog-selling business has shrunk to almost a half of what it used to be,” Choi said. “They want to find a way out, but it’s also the only work they’ve known for years. They’re afraid to leave.”