Dog meat consumption and dogs as pets in South Korea

Recently, people – especially in Western countries – have used social media tools such as Facebook in order to protest against the dog meat festival in Yulin in South Central China at 22 June. A significant request has also been signed and sent to the government of Yulin.

As a Korean wave scholar, this is of some significance since one may try to learn as much as possible about (contempory) Korean culture in general. Additionally, Korean cuisine can be regarded as an integral part of a larger and multi-faceted Korean wave, and since this is related to national branding and image, one can hypothesize that the consumption of dog meat in South Korea will be downplayed or questioned by native Koreans in order to please Westerners. It might also be the case that since other East Asian populations – particularly Japanese and Chinese people – are the main targets for Korean cultural products, the opinions of Westerners are of less significance. Overall, this is not to be regarded as a big issue – at least as long as South Koreans do not promote similar events such as those in Yulin – and a large share of Westerners do nowadays probably associate the country in question much more with Samsung products and K-pop than this.

However, in conjunction with the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988, and the jointly hosted football World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002, the dog meat issue has been highlighted by Western media. Since the latest event took place almost 13 years ago, it is relevant to look into more recent studies on this phenomenon. One sigfinicant contribution is Anthony L. Podberscek’s article ‘Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea’ (Journal of Social Issues, vol. 65, number 3, 2009, pp. 615-632). I will briefly discuss some of its contents.

One may note that in all of Asia, ‘only’ about 13-16 million dogs and cats are eaten each year. Thus, even though one may see the dog meat festival in Yulin as an horrific event, it would be very misguided to regard Chinese people in general as large consumers of dogs, “It has been calculated that in Asia, about 13–16 million dogs and 4 million cats are eaten each year (Bartlett & Clifton, 2003).”

The same goes for South Korea. However, as the results from Podberscek’s study indicates, a significant share of South Koreans would not support a hypothetical national dog meat ban. South Koreans eat dogs for a variety of reasons, such as to be sociable, for the taste, and due to the belief that it has health benefits, and about 40 per cent do it occasionally. The idea of various health benefits is largely related to Confucianism:

According to Ann (1999, 2003a), the eating of dog meat has a long history in Korea, originating during the era of Samkug (Three Kingdoms, 57 BC to AD 676). It was not common after this period, though, as Buddhism grew in popularity and became the state religion during the Koryo Dynasty (918–1392). However, during the Choson Dynasty (1392–1910), Confucianism became the state ideology, paving the way for the return of dog meat as food. Indeed, Confucians enjoyed the meat so much that it was, according to oral tradition, nicknamed “Confucians’ meat” (Walraven, 2001). To justify this, Confucians pointed to the canonical authorization of the so-called Chinese Book of Rites, in which dogs are divided into three classes: hunting dogs, watchdogs, and food (Ash, 1927, p. 59; Walraven, 2001). During this period, dog meat was served in many ways, including gaejangguk (original name for dog soup; also spelt kaejangguk), sukyuk (meat boiled in water), sundae (a sausage), kui (roasted meat), and gaesoju (literally “dog liquor,” also spelt kae-soju; Ann, 1999). Kim (1989) found details of 14 different dog meat recipes for the period of 1670–1943. The consumption of dog meat has mainly been associated with farmers trying to maintain their stamina during the oppressive heat of summer (Simoons, 1994; Walraven, 2001). However, exceptions to this have been found. For example, in 1534, there is a reference during the reign of King Chungjong that dog meat was offered to a high official as a bribe, and in 1777, a reference was made to government officials going out to eat dog meat soup (Walraven, 2001).

These attitudes may have changed more or less in just the recent years, but dog meat consumption has unhesitatingly still persisted to a fairly large extent. Historically, dog meat has been distinguished from pet dogs, and similar to Japanese and Western people a significant share of contemporary South Koreans invest time and money in the caretaking of their pet dogs; cats are however seldom used as pets and are not looked upon as food (almost at all).

In relationship to Western and Japanese consumers of South Korean cultural products, one may suggest that South Koreans might want to downplay the dog meat consumption and instead highlight that certain dog breeds are used as pets and are not ill-treated. Chinese people in general will probably not be upset due to their neighbors dog meat consumption – instead it can be regared as evidence that Chinese culture has influenced smaller countries in the East Asian region – and might also be influenced by the ways that South Koreans treat their pet dogs. The reason for this suggestion is because of that Korean celebrities are highly regarded among a significant share of Chinese people, and it is not unusual that some of these walk around with their cute pet dogs. To take care of a pet dog may appear as cool, cute and cosmopolitan.

Lastly, I have also included a rather extensive quote regarding dog and cat meat consumption in a regional and global perspective, and on the objects of the study:

Today, the consumption of dogs and cats still occurs in a number of countries, including Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam (see Bartlett & Clifton, 2003; Podberscek, 2007), but the eating of dogs was outlawed in the Philippines in 1998 and cat eating was banned in Vietnam in 1998. In 1996, it was reported that dog meat was still being eaten in parts of Eastern Switzerland (De Leo, 1996). It has been calculated that in Asia, about 13–16 million dogs and 4 million cats are eaten each year (Bartlett & Clifton, 2003). The issue of eating dogs and/or cats is highly emotive, especially in countries (largely Western) where the practice has been extinguished for a long time or has rarely or never occurred (e.g., UK, USA). In these countries, the very idea of consuming a cat or a dog is viewed as abhorrent and morally corrupt. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering dogs and cats are mainly kept as pet animals. But in the countries where cats and dogs are consumed, these animals are also kept as pets (e.g., China and Vietnam; Podberscek 2007). The concern that people have about dog and/or cat eating manifests itself in the form of international campaigns calling for a ban. One country which has received an enormous amount of negative, international media attention because it allows the consumption of dogs and cats is South Korea. However, little scholarly literature exists on the consumption of dogs and cats in this country (or, indeed, pet ownership) and the attitudes residents hold toward consumption and pet ownership. The present study, funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), was designed to fill this gap. Firstly, historical and current information on the roles of cats and dogs as pets and food in South Korea will be provided. Secondly, the results of an opinion poll on what adult South Koreans think about dogs and cats as pets and as food will be reported.

De senaste veckorna och dagarna har den årliga hundköttsfestivalen i Yulin i södra Kina, som hade sin huvuddag under måndagen den 22 juni, hamnat i blickfånget, och lett till en våg av reaktioner på sociala medier och bland en del kändisar och djurrättsaktivister.

Det är framför allt västerlänningar som har upprörts av detta men i viss mån även människor från andra kultursfärer, inklusive kineser. Det mest upprörande torde inte vara hundätandet i sig utan de bestialiska slaktmetoderna och de dåliga förhållanden som hundarna – som ofta stjäls från hundägare – upplever innan de dödas för att säljas och ätas. Mest groteskt är när hundar flås levande och lämnas hudlösa för att dö i plågor. Med det sagt finns även en klar kulturell skillnad eftersom hundätande inte ses som legitimt eller knappt ens är förekommande alls i västerländska länder, åtminstone sett till de senaste århundradena. I samband med perioder av hungersnöd har dock en viss mängd och andel hundar ätits i Europa.

Noterbart är dock att det “bara” äts omkring 13-16 miljoner hundar och katter i hela Asien varje år med tanke på att det bor drygt fyra miljarder människor i denna världsdel, “It has been calculated that in Asia, about 13–16 million dogs and 4 million cats are eaten each year (Bartlett & Clifton, 2003).” Därför är det självfallet så att kineser i gemen inte äter hund i särskilt omfattande utsträckning. Det är viktigt att ha klart för sig, och det tror jag att många förstår.

Som akademiker med inriktning mot modern koreansk populärkultur (hallyu) har jag dock närmat mig frågan ur ett sydkoreanskt perspektiv genom Anthony L. Podbersceks studie “Good to Pet and eat: The keeping and sonsuming of dogs and cats in South Korea” (Journal of Social Issues, vol. 65, nummer 3, 2009, sidorna 615-632).

Ovan finns en del citat från denna studie och jag tänker inte gå in på varenda aspekt, men det man i all korthet kan slå fast är att ett hypotetiskt förbud mot hundätande i Sydkorea inte skulle stödjas av en majoritet vuxna koreaner. Cirka 40% av dessa äter hund vid åtminstone enstaka tillfällen, och en inte obetydlig andel har hundar som husdjur – man skiljer därmed mellan olika hundraser och deras olika funktioner.

Orsakerna och rötterna till koreanskt hundätande är flera, bland annat har idéer från neo-konfucianism – som har sitt ursprung i Kina – påverkat koreaner (och kineser givetvis), och innebär att man tror att kundkött kan förbättra potensen hos män och hälsan hos människor i allmänhet. Det finns alltså en koppling till en betydande andel koreaners nationella självförståelse och kulturella identitet. Även smaken och den sociala dimensionen i fråga om hundätande, liksom gemensamma måltider överlag, är något som också lyfts fram i sammanhanget. Det kan alltså vara trevligt att äta ett stycke hundkött tillsammans lika väl som andra rätter.

Kopplar man i sin tur detta till kineser kontra västerlänningars generella attityder och deras samband med vågen av koreansk populärkultur, kan man tänka sig att kineser överlag inte upprörs över att det äts hund i Korea – tvärtom kan kanske koreaners särskilda sätt att tillaga hundkött ses som intressant bland en del kineser – medan en betydande andel västerlänningar kan bli upprörda och få en sämre bild av Sydkorea som en följd av detta. Därför skulle man kunna tänka sig att sydkoreaner vill tona ner bilden av hundätande i relation till västerlänningar – och i stället lyfta fram att man har ett flertal raser som husdjur – men inte i relation till kineser eftersom det inte behövs. Möjligen skulle man dock kunna tänka sig att kineser blir påverkade av k-popstjärnor som har söta hundar som husdjur.

Men i och med att Sydkorea i dag mest är känt för Samsungprodukter och k-pop kan man också behöva betona att det här ses som en mindre viktig fråga (såvida det inte skulle anordnas en lika bestialisk festival i Sydkorea). I samband med sommar-OS i Seoul 1988 och fotbolls-VM i Japan och Sydkorea 2002 belystes dock frågan i västerländska, inklusive svenska medier. Och i den mån västerlänningar intresserar sig för koreansk mat så väljer man vanligen andra rätter än dem som innehåller hundkött – det finns många sådana att välja mellan, som kimchi, bibimpap, kimpap, amgyopsal, doenjang jjigae och många, många fler.

Avslutningsvis kan det även nämnas att koreaner inte äter katt, ej heller har katter som husdjur annat än i begränsad utsträckning. I djuraffärer i Seoul har jag dock sett kattungar, vilket framgår av fotot nedan som jag tog för drygt sex år sedan i samband med vistelse i huvudstaden.