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S. Korean wages a visual campaign against dog eating

One activist uses graphic images to make his case. South Koreans are increasingly taking the lead in their country in promoting animal rights, going so far as to question their cultural traditions.

September 04, 2009|John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park | Park is an assistant in The Times' Seoul Bureau.

SEOUL — As Lee Won-bok arranged his posters one Saturday at a busy outdoor pedestrian mall, passersby peeked over his shoulder in dismay and horror.

Some covered their eyes. But hundreds also clamored to sign Lee's petition to outlaw a traditional culinary practice here: the eating of dog meat.

Each weekend, the 45-year-old animal rights activist stages a graphic photo display of dogs kept in cages, hanged and butchered, their meat prepared for market. He knows the images are hard to look at. But that's precisely his point, to show the harsh treatment of an animal that many South Koreans now view as companions, not cuisine.

For years, foreign advocates have railed against the practice of butchering dogs and cats. Although Koreans have eaten dogs for centuries, the habit became more prevalent during the privations that followed the Korean War. It eventually spread from the poor and elderly to be adopted by the more affluent as niche cuisine.

Most protests were dismissed as the unwanted opinions of outsiders. But as the country has acquired more trappings of Western culture, the number of pet owners has exploded, and South Koreans are taking the lead in promoting animal rights here.

In recent years, at least nine domestic groups against eating dog have been founded to stage street and online campaigns nationwide.

"People don't comprehend the suffering these dogs endure," Lee said. "They may vaguely realize that people still eat dogs. But they need to know what happens to the animals."

Lee, founder of the Korea Assn. of Animal Protection, gets in people's faces. He has barged into City Hall to confront an official who favored consuming dog meat and brazenly displayed his photos at a local dog market as a vendor tried to choke him.

He represents a new breed of animal rights activist: a South Korean who aggressively questions the traditions of his own culture.

"Pets are now objects of emotional interaction, just as in Western society," said Joo Eun-woo, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "Some people sleep with their dogs. For them, seeing these animals as food is taboo."

In 2005, one in four South Koreans was a dog or cat owner. In addition, the number of pet shops and animal-themed television shows have risen in the nation of 48 million people.

South Koreans wield more influence than foreign activists, said Lee, who has been a vegetarian for 20 years. "People can no longer say, 'Outsiders can't tell us what to eat.' Now Koreans are telling Koreans."

On some weekend days, he is able to collect more than 1,000 signatures. He says he has amassed 300,000 over nine years.

"We are a new generation of Koreans, and it's up to us to stop this practice," said Won Ji-yeon, 17, who stood in line to sign Lee's list.

National laws prohibit eating dog meat, but the government rarely enforces them. Dog markets are rarely, if ever, inspected for health and sanitary conditions.

Six years ago, a local court rebuffed a lawsuit that Lee filed seeking to suspend sales of dog meat soup, called boshintang, ruling that eating soup made from dog was too prevalent a custom to prohibit. But Lee and others successfully lobbied the government to outlaw the butchering of pet dogs that stray from their masters.

Canine cuisine enthusiasts say they distinguish between dogs they eat and those kept as pets. They say they reserve a special breed of dog for consumption, never mixing the two.

Activists say the lines often blur. Many domesticated breeds, including collies and spaniels, are also consumed after being scooped up as runaways. Lee rescues stray dogs as a way to keep them out of the hands of dog meat vendors.

On the three days each year when many South Koreans traditionally eat boshintang, activists stage street protests, portraying dogs kept in cages and hanged for their meat -- anything, they say, to diminish the outmoded appetite for dog meat.

But the cuisine has its adherents.

Last month, on the year's final boshintang day, the regulars packed into Mr. Moon's Dog Meat Stew Restaurant, where the year-round menu includes not only boshintang, but also dog soup and dog served with vegetables and hot pepper sauce, along with non-dog dishes.

Hong Sung-woo said dog stew is healthy.

"It gives me stamina," said the former government worker, now 84. "How do you think I've lived this long?"

The cuisine also remains popular among some government officials, including Cham Lee, the German-born director of the Korean Tourism Organization, who also raises Korean Jindo dogs as pets. He elicited criticism when he held a private wine and dog-tasting seminar. His verdict: Dog goes best with a light Shiraz, or a nice Riesling.

Parisians can eat horse meat because France is considered high culture, he said. But South Korea gets no such pass.

"Westerners eat one type of animal and tell the world they can't eat another," he said. "I say, if you eat animals, you eat animals."

Lee, the activist, pledges to continue his campaign until the practice of eating dog ends.

He uses the signatures he collects to make the case to legislators that the public is on his side.

"Dog eating in Korea is not going to end in one day or one year," he said. "But it's only a matter of time."

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

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