Where dogs are diners or dinners

SUN JOURNAL

Extremes: While South Korea has come under international criticism for its canine cuisine, the growing popularity of dogs as pets there has spawned cafes that cater to the four-footed creatures.

January 26, 2002|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - Prancing on a chair in a fashionable cafe, an 11-month-old beagle wears a red patent-leather collar and a sweater in festive colors. Nobody seems bothered when she puts her paws on the cafe table or tries to lap at her owner's cappuccino. In fact, this cafe is designed especially for dog owners - the menu even includes dog food - and many of the clients say they wouldn't consider going out on weekends to any establishment that didn't welcome their pets.

"My dog comes first," says Kim Ju Young, a 29-year-old marketing manager who, with her beagle, Blue, patronizes several new cafes in Seoul that cater to dogs.

Across town there is another eating establishment where the customers speak highly of dog. Dog meat is the specialty of the house.

"Dog meat gives a man strength and vigor," declares 86-year-old Park In Bok, a retired businessman, polishing off a bowl of spicy crimson soup made of stewed canine, red pepper and sesame leaves.

There are two kinds of dogs in South Korea, those that are coddled, coiffed and often treated with more indulgence than children - and those that are raised as a culinary delicacy. Therein lies a contradiction inherent in Korean culture that has become a veritable tempest in a soup pot.

The long-standing practice of eating dog has come under fire of late because of a well-publicized campaign by foreign animal rights activists and because of the increasing popularity of dogs as pets.

The flap started in November when the organizers of the World Cup soccer games, with South Korea and Japan as co-hosts in May and June, publicly called on Korea to "show the world that it is sensitive to vociferous worldwide public opinion and that it rejects cruelty." Then the French actress Brigitte Bardot touched a raw nationalist nerve by accusing Koreans of savagery in the methods they use to slaughter dogs for consumption.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va., submitted in November a petition signed by dozens of celebrities asking the South Korean government to crack down on what it calls the torture of cats and dogs. Cem Akin, the organization's lead investigator on the issue, says the problem is not the use of dogs for food but the methods of killing.

"Dogs and cats, cows, sheep and chicken all have the ability to feel pain. Our basic point is that all animals used as food should be kept out of cruel food production methods. Culture and tradition are not an excuse for cruelty," Akin says.

To say that Koreans are defensive about this matter is an understatement. Hardly a day goes by without an indignant editorial in the South Korean news media defending the eating of dog meat to the point that it has become a national obsession. The editorialists cite everything from anthropological theories of cultural relativism to Confucian principles of hierarchy that make it acceptable for a human being to consume animals of lower position.

The official Korean news agency, Yonhap, gloatingly reports the discovery of a village in Switzerland where smoked dog meat sausage is a local specialty, while China's ambassador to Seoul, Li Bin, was widely quoted in the South Korean media after he spoke up at a breakfast meeting of editors in support of dog-eating as an integral part of Korean culture.

A group of 167 prominent Koreans, including intellectuals, academics and trade unionists, issued a statement last month denouncing Western critics of dog-eating as "ethnocentric" and the "real barbarians for failing to understand the relativity of culinary culture."

"We do not understand the snail-eating, horse meat-eating cuisine that some Westerners seem to like," reads their statement. "Korea should not attempt to appease [foreign] critics, for to do so is to betray their own culture."

Exasperated by the whole affair and eager to put the matter to rest before the opening of the World Cup in May, the South Korean legislature introduced a bill last month that would formally legalize the eating of dog but regulate the manner in which canines are slaughtered. Although electric shock is now widely used, traditional methods included burning, boiling, strangling and beating, based on the belief that a frightened animal experiences an adrenalin rush that makes its flesh a medicine against male impotence.

"Korean men would eat absolutely anything if they thought it would increase their virility," complains Kum Sun Ran, the director and founder of the Korean Animal Protection Society. The wife of a pharmacist, Kum says that there is no medical evidence that dog meat cures impotence but that unethical dog meat vendors and restaurants sometimes slip aphrodisiacs into the meat to promote the myth. "I try to tell the men that even if it is true, now there is Viagra and they don't need to eat dog. But they do not listen."

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