The Korea Times
Age-old debate on dog meat
Koreans are spending the hottest days of their lives since 1994, with the mercury soaring up to nearly 40 degrees Centigrade (104 F) in the ancient capital city of Gyeongju and 36 degrees C (96.8 F) in Seoul early this week.
The sultry weather is usually described as “sambok deowi” or “heat wave during the period of three (“sam”) Dog Days,” which fall on July 12 (“chobok”), July 22 (“jungbok”) and Aug. 11 (“malbok”) this year.
On the past two Dog Days of “chobok” and “jungbok,” there were long queues of citizens in front of restaurants serving “samgye-tang” (boiled chicken soup stuffed with ginseng, jujubes, rice and other herbs) and “bosin-tang” (dog meat soup) like any other year.
The two different “burning” soups are highly regarded as health food to help beat the heat during summer, in particular, as bosin-tang literally means “soup of tonic.”
Around this time every year, the age-old debate is revived about the dog meat and this year is without exception.
In particular, pros and cons are tough this year, with dog lovers and dog meat lovers staging their respective street demonstrations. Even some foreign ladies, clad in traditional Korean clothes of “chima and jeogori,” protested the Koreans’ eating of dog meat at Gwanghwamun Square and in front of the National Assembly building on Yeouido.
“How can you eat a dog?” the foreigners argue, claiming that Korea has two faces like Jekyll and Hyde. “What’s wrong with eating a dog that is not a pet?” dog meat lovers ask. It is a little curious why Western countries condemn only Korea for eating dog meat, even though there are officially “many” countries having the same culinary culture, such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia to name a few
Statistics show that dogs are the fourth most popular kind of meat in Korea after pork, beef and chicken. Koreans raised dogs from ancient times, just as they bred cattle and pigs. Dogs guarded their homes and later were used for food to supply protein, which most people lacked because they could not slaughter cattle that were an important part of farming.
Ironically, the sale and consumption of dog meat is illegal, but not punishable, in Korea. The government introduced the “symbolic” ban before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, concerned about the nation’s international image, designating it as a “disgusting food.”
In fact, there is no law regulating the process of butchering dogs or distributing the meat. Neither is there a law banning the sale of dog meat.
For reference, Taiwan became the first Asian country in April this year to ban the consumption of dog and cat meat. Previously, the legislation had covered only the slaughter and sale of these meats. Those convicted of eating dog or cat meat can be fined between $1,640 and $8,200. There have been no reports, so far, about the “criminal punishment of those who ate the meat.”
In 1999, a best-selling novelist and opposition lawmaker, Kim Hong-shin, initiated a bill to legalize dog meat, and questioned then foreign ambassadors in Seoul about the eating of canine flesh.
Out of 26 envoys questioned, 20 or 77 percent, answered they approve of or at least were not against the Korean culinary culture. As for the reason, they said cultures differ from country to country and those differences should be respected. I don’t think the top diplomats representing their respective countries paid diplomatic lip service. The bill was not put forward and was later discarded.
During the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup competition, many reporters from South America, Asia and some European countries asked me where they could find a bosintang restaurant. I told them without hesitation, “Why don’t you ask Korean reporters at the Press Center? They will name “xx jib” (house or restaurant). But you know, it is very expensive.” I still have no idea about whether they went there. But I think they did and enjoyed it.
Former Korea Times food and wine columnist Betsy O’Brien described a dog meat restaurant in her book, “The Seoul Food Guide,” published in 1994: “To get under the skin of Korean culture properly, you should really do what lots of Koreans do in the hottest period of the year. Visit a restaurant which serves dog meat.
“Beliefs about this meat are widely held here in Korea. It is particularly prized as being easily digestible and endowed with properties to help the eater through the hot weather. So this is a uniquely Korean cuisine.”
In the middle of the 1990s, scores of middle school students in Seoul sent protest letters to French actress Brigit Bardot (1934~ ), who is a supporter of animal rights and has long criticized Koreans for eating of dog meat, condemning it as barbaric.
One of the students asked, “Would you like it if Koreans called the French barbarians just because they eat snails and foie gras (goose liver made bigger and more delicious by food forced down the throats of goose through pipe).”
Actually, dogs for bosin-tang are quite different from pets like poodles, greyhounds, St. Bernards, Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas and spaniels among others.
Dogs for this Korean traditional culinary delicacy are exclusively bred by ranchers in the same way that cows, pigs and rams are raised for slaughter.
However, since a few years ago, the popularity of bosin-tang has been ebbing remarkably, apparently due in part to the expensive price and in part the unsanitary process of butchering and retailing the meat, with the number of people living with dogs as pets sharply rising to nearly 10 million.
The problem is the process of supplying the meat, from butchering to the dining table. Since there is no law governing the supply of the meat, sanitary problems and the price have been the main concerns of consumers.
Koreans do not eat pets, but dogs.