Dogs: Man’s best friend or a tasty treat?
July 8, 2007
SEOUL — On a dusty, bustling sidewalk in the heart of downtown Seoul, Lee Kyung-ja hawks the latest styles to fashion-savvy customers: plaid Burberry coats, fuzzy pink sweaters, red-and-white striped Ralph Lauren shirts, each hung on tiny hangers or laid in orderly rows at her open-air stall.
The buyers mostly are young women, often accompanied by their boyfriends. But the clothes are for their dogs — pint-sized terriers, trimmed poodles and occasionally, a German shepherd-sized pooch — all dressed by doting owners and meant to be seen.
Just around the block is an establishment for a different kind of dog lover — the kind who likes to eat them.
Inside Park Jae-sun’s simply furnished restaurant, tucked down a narrow alley on the outskirts of an outdoor market, the only item on the menu is dog meat. The customers are usually men, 30 years and older, who eat the dish for its reputed energy-giving properties, especially during the humid summer months.
The restaurant, with its almost bare walls, traditional low tables and floor seating, has served dog meat since the end of the Korean War, and Park is proud of its history. Customers often come alone, he said, and line up in the tiny stairway outside the door waiting for a seat.
He blames their secrecy on foreigners, who tell South Koreans that it’s barbaric to eat dogs.
“It is nothing but a prejudice,” said Park, 52.
But back at Lee’s dog-clothing stand, she and most of her customers have a different view.
“It’s gross,” said Lee, also 52. “Eating a dog is out of fashion.”
Trendy to dress, trendy to dishDogs have long been raised for food in South Korea, which until the past few decades was largely agrarian and poor. Today, trendy Seoulites take their pooches to dog cafes, tote them around in purses, and have their fur dyed at doggie beauty salons.
Their popularity as pets is a sign of the country’s growing economy, experts say, and of the differences here between the young and old, traditional culture and Western values.
“Young people, they think like the Westerners. They realize it’s a pet. How can you eat your pet?” said Mark Monahan, an Asian studies professor at the University of Maryland in Seoul who grew up in North Korea.
In the past, Koreans raised dogs for food, security, and — before Western-style diapers were adopted — to clean up after their babies, he said.
“We were so poor, very poor. You don’t know what poor meant,” he said. “We ate dogs because there was nothing else to eat. When you’re hungry, you eat anything.”
He remembers when he was 8 or 9 and his father killed their family’s black dog so they could eat it.
“I really cried for several days, because that was a pet to me,” Monahan said.
Now, South Koreans in their mid-30s and younger rarely eat dog meat, he said. He believes that only a fraction of South Koreans — maybe 1 or 2 percent — still eat dog meat, and the practice eventually will die out.
But Ahn Yong-keun, a South Korean nutrition professor known as “Dr. Dogmeat,” disagrees.
Now, it’s trendy for young men to eat sliced fresh dog meat and Korean-style dog chowder, both more expensive than the traditional dog meat stew, he said.
Like many, he believes South Koreans who oppose eating dog meat are bowing to pressure from Western countries. That pressure that amounts to arrogance and racial discrimination against South Koreans and all Asians, he said.
Illegal or not?South Koreans are more reluctant to admit they eat dog meat because of “aggressive” animal rights groups, he said. The dogs are raised in wire cages, similar to those used for chickens or other livestock, and killed humanely by electric shock, he said. In the past, it took more than an hour to kill a dog by hand, he said.
Oh Eun-sung, deputy chief official of the Food Policy Division of Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, said there is a gray area when it comes to whether serving dog meat is legal or illegal.
Dogs are not considered livestock, so processing them is illegal. But dog meat restaurants are allowed to operate as long as they’re registered with the government, just like any other restaurant.
Whispers of betrayalSupporters say the dogs raised for meat are different than those kept as pets.
“We never, never eat the pet dogs,” said Park, the restaurant owner, who said his children want a dog but won’t get one. He’s afraid he will end up taking care of it, and he’s too busy for that.
Plenty of South Koreans, however, are willing to spend time and money on their dogs.
At Dr. Youn’s Animal Hospital in downtown Seoul, dog owners can buy jasmine, rosemary or Chanel-scented cologne for about $3.10. They can also buy tiny red zippered boots, a feeding bottle, a shoulder-harnessed dog carrier, or a hot-pink jogging suit with “Princess” written in rhinestones.
In his 30 years as a veterinarian, Youn has seen dogs become more popular as pets, and less popular as food. Now, most dog owners he meets turn up their noses at eating dog meat, but not all, he said.
“They love their dogs so much, but they go to poshen-tang restaurants,” he said. “They even whisper to their dog, ‘Sorry, I ate a dog today and I won’t do it again.’”
Some GIs take a bite, while some take a pass
Pvt. Nakea Brock knows dog meat is a delicacy in South Korea. But that doesn’t mean she wants to eat it.
“Dogs are pets, not food,” said the New Orleans native, who, like many Americans stationed in Seoul, doesn’t plan to dine on canine.
Opinions among soldiers about eating dog meat, reportedly healthier than other meats and traditionally served in the hot summer months to give energy, range from outright disgust to curiosity to acceptance.
“We’ve got to respect their culture and their country,” Brock said.
For some, tasting dog is a sort of rite of passage in South Korea.
Sgt. Joaney Taylor said some of her American soldiers ate dog meat with South Korean soldiers and liked it. But she skipped the invitation.
“I wouldn’t try it because I’m just not too keen on eating my pets,” Taylor said.
Spc. Kevin Reel has eaten dog meat about four times, and said it tastes like squirrel, only stringier.
The North Carolina native tasted dog for the first time at a Korean restaurant with a half-dozen South Korean soldiers, none of whom had eaten it before.
“It seems like a lot of the younger generation, they don’t eat it,” Reel said. At least one of those South Korean soldiers refused to eat more than a bite of dog.
Reel’s South Korean wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law won’t eat dog, though his in-laws occasionally serve it at home. And even though it’s never made him feel particularly energetic, he likes it.
“It tasted quite good,” he said.
Staff Sgt. David Gorrell, of West Virginia, knows dog is a delicacy, but he hasn’t tried it and probably won’t. Neither will Staff Sgt. Gail Williams.
“The idea of eating a dog — it’s not normal. It’s just not natural,” she said. “I think dogs are pets.”