Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reasons for the Poor Treatment of Dogs in Korea

Well, it finally had to happen, a blog post about the treatment of dogs in Korea.  I have been trying to avoid it as it is just so obvious, but I have touched on the subject briefly in a few blogs already. 

Due to an interesting disagreement with a reader of my blogs I thought it would be wise to spend a little more time and effort on the subject.

I have always argued that dogs are something special and that we have a deeper relationship and connection with them than any other animal and this is precisely the reason I find the treatment of our best friends in the animal world so abhorrent in Korea.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that there is indeed a close connection between us.

Very briefly, I will describe some of the problems involving dogs in Korea.  Everyone, I dare say, knows that some Korean people eat dogs, but it is not the killing of them for food that is the biggest evil, it is the care of them while they are alive that leaves little to be desired.

In the dog meat trade they have a reputation for beating or hanging dogs to death, slowly and painfully because they feel that the adrenalin produced by the stress makes the meat more tender and delicious.  Many also spend most of their lives rotting away in the filth and squalor of their own and other dogs feces and urine, tightly packed into cages.  This is all illegal, but the laws are rarely enforced.

Outside of the dog meat trade, unless they are small dogs - which are pampered house pets with often coloured paws, ears, and tails - a dog can look forward to a life sitting outside of the house, tied up on a small leash and rarely, if ever, let off it in all weathers.  I am fairly confident that almost every foreigner living in Korea will have seen examples of this, it is extremely widespread.

In my post on abortion in Korea, I made a judgment about Korean culture partly based on its treatment of dogs, which was that they had a lower respect for life generally than in Western culture (bear in mind that I do realize that all individuals are different and that there are many Westerners that have less respect for life and dogs, I am merely commenting on general observable trends I have noticed).  This does not mean that I do not think Korean culture has no respect for life, of course it does.

What I do regret about that particular post is not the conclusions but the fact that I did not explain fully where I thought attitudes to life, abortion and the treatment of dogs came from.  I think this made the post seem overly judgmental and lacking in empathy and understanding of their situation.  The reader I mentioned earlier quite rightly pointed to an important point that I failed to include.

It has only really been about 30 or 40 years since Korea has been a developed nation and not in the midst of stark poverty.  The change in the country's fortunes is unlike any other country in history and there are bound to be issues involved with it. 

When we talk of Western culture we must realize that we have lived in relative affluence for much longer, and the higher levels of our society have had the means to live comfortable lives for hundreds of years.  This makes thinking about morals in detail much more possible and it makes treating others around us with affection a lot easier, whether they are human or not.  Even in the West today, poverty is obviously related with higher rates of crime and animal cruelty.  Morals are not exclusively a luxury of people who can afford them, but it sure helps.

If you can't scrape enough food together to feed your family, you are hardly going to worry about the moral value of animals, and if any of us were in that position we would kill dogs and eat them if they couldn't help us find food in other ways.  This is exactly the situation as it was in Korea, and not that long ago.  There are probably many people alive today who faced that level of poverty in this country and in North Korea (although it is hard to know exactly what is going on there) this problem still exists.  North Korea can help us paint a picture of how the South once was.

This extreme need may have even reinforced their already ingrained culture of the group, helping each other survive (mainly family), and may also reduce the thought of welfare of outsiders, again whether this be animal or human because they had enough to worry about keeping themselves fed and warm.  Within the group or family unit the value of life is as high as anywhere and any culture, it is outside of the group that I am really arguing about.

It is difficult to say these things without sounding rather blunt and harsh but our own culture can be no better, as the bloody history of Western Europe shows.  We will have no equal in the level of cruelty our ancestors reaped on animals and people, and the sheer enjoyment they experienced from it.

For example, medieval European crowds used to gather at such wonderful spectacles as bear baiting - tying a bear to a post and unleashing a pack of dogs to see which would tear each other apart first, which unfortunately still occurs in many countries - and cat burning - where cats were bundled together in a bag and slowly burned over a fire while crowds of people laughed at the shrieks of pain as the animals were roasted alive.  People still enjoy cock fights and dog fights in the nasty little underbelly of our culture and it also is quite observable just how much violence is present in Western movies compared to in the East.

Europeans also perfected the art of torture, especially the Spanish Inquisition.  It took hundreds of years to combat these ways of thinking with gradual moral progress.  The Korean 'Civilizing Process' has not had nearly enough time to seep into the culture as a whole. (Note: the term 'Civilizing Process' and descriptions of torture in the last couple of paragraphs are sourced from Steven Pinker's book 'The Better Angels of Our Nature').

Right, back to dogs.  Western cultures, I believe, amplify the connection between dogs and people.  We are individualistic and because of this I think Western people put themselves in the position of other individuals a little more naturally.  We humanize dogs because of this. 

Dogs as companions also have more relevance to us.  In Korea, when people are older, they tend to have a closer relationship with grandchildren and therefore the whole family.  Family groups usually stick together a little better, at least that is my observation.  In the West, dogs are often seen as a friend for older people and take the place of family members when they cannot be around. 

Westerners are also more prone to live alone generally, making the dog more likely to give good company.  Even attitudes toward cleanliness in our houses may make it easier for us to welcome dogs into our lives.  Most Koreans I have met do not like the idea of dogs dirtying the house with hair, mud, and dirt from outside.

It could also be that the topography of Korea has not helped in building a bond between man and dog.  With such a mountainous country Korea does not have the perfect kind of land for rearing animals on wide open stretches of pasture, because of this they may have not had much need of dogs except as guard dogs and as early warning systems of intruders - this still appears to be their main job, tied up outside in front of houses.

The fact is that if we had grown up in Korea, with a Korean family and friends, our attitude to dogs would be exactly the same.  This makes it impossible to characterize Koreans as evil or inhumane, even if that is the first thought that leaps into our minds when we see what looks like the abuse of our furry friends.

It is so easy to look at controversial practices in other cultures and be so shocked or even horrified about what is happening and demonize those that are doing it.  If I, in this post or any other, seem like I am doing this, it is not my intention but I think it is important to speak out about things and being offensive appears to be a fiendishly easy thing to do on touchy subjects like culture, race, and religion. 

People will cling on to traditions of the past even if they are bad ones, calling them out is the only way forward and having some understanding helps cushion the blow that these criticisms have.  Perhaps it was this understanding and sensitivity that I was missing on my post on abortion and the value of life in Korea.

The only problem is that as soon as I write with some sensitivity, I can't help but notice the tone changes to condescending.  'Give them a little while longer and they could be as moral and civilized as we are.'  I think that sounds almost just as bad, but maybe I can provide something a little more palatable. 

I think it is a legitimate exercise to judge some aspects of culture good or bad and this can be helpful in identifying which practices should be encouraged and discouraged with your own culture.  Saying a whole culture is good or bad, right or wrong, however, is never helpful. 

When it comes to their current treatment of dogs specifically, I am judging it as bad and I claim the right to say it.  Too many people have almost no thought for the suffering of the animal and it is a sad sight to see.  This does not mean that I do not understand why they behave this way or judge the culture as a whole as wicked or inferior.  Indeed, in many of my blog posts I have highlighted many other aspects of Korean culture that are superior to our own.  It is a question of give and take, but taboos about what we can say or write about are still very relevant, and anybody who questions the practices of other cultures, especially anything to do with morals and ethics, better be prepared to take some abuse for it.

Sources: Again an update to prove I am not making this stuff up about the killing of dogs in Korea, but my sources were Korean people that still admit that it goes on. (search on youtube for dog cruelty in Korea: warning, videos have the potential to upset people)


  1. This feels unfinished. Regardless, someone is going to correct you on this: dogs are not tortured to make the meat more delicious. If the adrenaline in the muscle fibers made it tastier then logically we’d also see chickens pigs and cows being beaten, but we don’t. Canine flesh is not actually very delicious, and if it were I doubt it would be cooked they way it most commonly is, by boiling it in a pot along with large amounts of red and black pepper.

    Rather, the reason lies in the traditional belief that the meat is healthy, specifically healthy for male sexual stamina. It’s not scientific, not at all. It’s a very old tradition, and there’s evidence of dogs as food that goes back many hundreds of years, if not thousands, so I’ll dissent from your view that dog soup has some relation to poverty and famine. From what I hear, just about every kind of food is reputed to have some health benefit for some part of the body, or some kinds of health conditions. After the ’88 Olympics caused restaurants that served dog soup (bosintang) to take a lower profile, an alternate name was devised, yeong-yang tang, literally ‘healthy soup.’

    I salute you for tackling a topic that so often raises ire from all sides whenever it comes up. However, I notice you don’t really intend to address the idea of whether dogs ought to be food, but rather I think you are saying that we ought to treat them better. It begs the question, though – if dog ranchers made sure that the critters lived in conditions similar to pigs and cows, and were likewise slaughtered less painfully … could we accept it as simply another culinary oddity, such as boiled silkworm cocoons or live octopus?

    It bears mentioning that we increasingly observe modern Koreans adopting Western attitudes about accepting domesticated animals as parts of our households. At the same time, there’s a contrary spirit at work, as many others resist the intentions of non-Koreans to attempt to alter what these Koreans see as parts of their cultural uniqueness. Myself, I try to discourage foreigners who come to Korea bringing their own cultural attitudes and seek tell Koreans what they should do, how they should behave, etc. Many such people will strenuously deny the charge of cultural chauvinism, but that is exactly what it is.

    1. I'm afraid I am pretty sure that they are still tortured in the belief it will make the meat taste better. It is not the mainstream method for sure, but it still happens. I have been informed of this practice by Korean people through my Korean family as well as the sources I am updating on here. Of course it is not scientific, but some people still believe it. My Korean family bought a chicken the other day and kept it in a bag, starving it for 3 days because they thought that it would taste better. So i think they do have some funny beliefs in this area.

      In this article I was concentrating only on the source of this behaviour, this might be why it seems unfinished. Whether I am right or wrong about the source, I am not telling them they should stop exactly, I am merely saying that it is not a good thing in my opinion. My problem is not so much with eating the animals, it is the treatment of them while they are alive. We obviously are open to the charge of special treatment of dogs on the grounds that we like them as we kill pigs, cows, etc. I actually think we are immoral on this count too, but that is a whole other debate.

    2. Poverty should not make people torturers and it it has to be a there is a cruel heartless nature in there to begin with.Most countries would never consider beating,hanging and blowtorching dogs because humans evolved dogs not only to work for us but to endear themselves to us to have strong bonds.Now if the dog killers and eaters of these countries had humanity they would be unable to enjoy what we find sickening.I think something we would call a soul is is non existent !

    3. You are right, of course, poverty should not make people animal torturers, but it is a fact that cruelty to animals within Western culture tends to go on more in poorer communities. Does poor = cruel, obviously not, but poor does = a greater likelihood of cruelty to animals.

      I don't think it has a great deal to do with nature, but I do think culture and cultural evolution play a role. Europeans generally used to attend scenes of animal torture for pleasure en masse, as I mentioned in the post. We gradually, with education and moral growth grew out of this (although some people still attend such things) and it is possible Korea will to. I do however, believe that with Korean culture's moral emphasis on duty and the group, it may be harder to get through to some, because dogs are not traditionally within their moral sphere of duties towards others and are not part of the group and are rarely considered part of the family. I see that as a key obstacle to overcome.

      The treatment of the dog in Korea also gives me pause for thought on what almost all countries do with regard to the meat trade with pigs, cows, chickens, etc. True, we don't directly inflict cruelty on animals ourselves, but I am not sure delegating it to someone else in a factory farm absolves us of the responsibility when we actually eat meat coming from such places.

  2. Another great post, and I agree with you (I am the reader who provoked this post in case anyone was wondering). My original point was never that you were wrong or offensive but that the general attidue towards dogs in Korea stems from poverty and an agrarian background moreso than a general lack of respect for life. I agree that animal cruelty is a sad, messed up thing and that its ubiquity in Korean life is deeply regrettable. I also agree that dogs are awesome little creatures.

    And while I can sympathize with your fear that perhaps the suggestion that Korea still has a long way to go might come off as a bit patronizing, I personally wouldn't worry much about it. That Korean culture is imperfect is a reality and when you start denying reality, you start entering the realm of blind jingoism. Anyone who can't see that is already too far gone to listen to sense anyway. Either that or just somewhat irked by hearing any foreigner criticize their homeland. Which is marginally more understandable, but in this case, I think even those people, if they're reasonable, should make an exception, given that you have practically been adopted into a Korean family anyway.

    To Bobster:

    "Regardless, someone is going to correct you on this: dogs are not tortured to make the meat more delicious. If the adrenaline in the muscle fibers made it tastier then logically we’d also see chickens pigs and cows being beaten, but we don’t. Canine flesh is not actually very delicious, and if it were I doubt it would be cooked they way it most commonly is, by boiling it in a pot along with large amounts of red and black pepper.

    Rather, the reason lies in the traditional belief that the meat is healthy, specifically healthy for male sexual stamina."

    Virtually everything every adult I've heard growing up has told me that the beating of dogs is to make their flesh taste better. This is literally the first time I've heard the beating practice tied to sexual virility. It could be argued that perhaps they wanted to spare a young boy the gritty details of male sexual enhancement, but the Korean culture actually has a long history of beating up dogs, even beyond culinary needs. In colloquial Korean speech, to beat someone "like a dog" is to severely assault someone and it is often said that the fastest way to make dogs obey your orders is to beat the obediance into them. So, yeah.

    "It’s a very old tradition, and there’s evidence of dogs as food that goes back many hundreds of years, if not thousands, so I’ll dissent from your view that dog soup has some relation to poverty and famine."

    I don't think he was arguing that the practice of dog eating resulted from poverty. I think he was arguing that the general tendency towards animal mistreatment in Korea stems from the people having been morally hardened by poverty. This was admittedly somewhat ambiguously phrased and also stems from an earlier discussion we had that you may not have read.

    1. Thanks again for posting a comment. I know you weren't offended by my post on abortion, but if you check out, where my blog is republished, many people were obviously offended (see the comments, they get quite spiteful). This is why a appreciated a sensible (and very mild) disagreement.

      Funnily enough, on a few articles I have posted that are negative to an aspect of Korean culture, my greatest critics are always from the Western community. Almost all of the replies I have received from Koreans are sensible and sympathetic to my arguments, especially when I talk about troubles with my Korean family.

  3. Again, we'd be doing it to every kind of animal if the purpse was to enhance flavor.

    Hope this helps.

    From another blogger a couple of years ago:

    ‘Dog is primarily eaten by men (older men) because of the apparent strength and sexual stamina it gives.’

    Someone’s Master’s thesis (journalism):

    ‘Huddled over beers, my male friends sometimes joked that they should have dog broth to make their girlfriends happy; drinking dog broth to improve sexual stamina is the most prevalent myth about dog meat in Korea.’

    A food blog:

    ‘Dogmeat is also supposed to be a male stimulant that increases sexual stamina and even though there is no scientific evidence to back it up….a lot of Koreans agree that “eating dog meat rearry gets me randy”. ‘

    About Gaegogi:

    ‘However, part of the controversy stems from the methods of slaughter, one of which includes beating to death by clubs to ensure that the dog is filled with adrenaline, believed to increase the sexual stamina of the (usually male) eater.’

    Yahoo Answers:

    ‘Those who consume dog meat are usually men with the belief that dog meat serves several medicinal purposes, primarily the enhancement of sexual stamina, called jeongryeok (정력).’

    1. They do indeed eat it because they think it will make them strong, but if you read further material, the slaughter being cruel is mainly for the taste of the meat:

      "According to a persistent and mystifying belief, the greater the terror and pain a dog experiences while dying—the more he suffers—the more intense the boost in adrenaline in the flesh for a tastier meat, as well as a real boon for a man’s virility."

      "The headline states that: "Meat from tortured dogs taste best. Come and buy!"

      "The myth is that the more pain suffered by these animals, the more tender and aphrodisiac the meat is."

      I am not arguing with your point that they eat it for the 'strength of a man', I know this, but the beating of the animal is also (if not principally) for the purpose of flavour or tenderisation. I know this because Korean people I know have mentioned it, together with the numerous websites carrying this information. I am pretty sure their reason for believing this is not scientific, it is just a bad tradition.

  4. We are not disagreeing, not really, but please note that two of your quotations here talk of 'man's virility' and 'aphrodisiac' - sexual enhancement, exactly that - and one more time, if the purpose of adrenaline in the meat relates to flavor enhancement, we'd see it happening with all forms of meat intended for food. Instead, beef is generally tenderized after slaughter, not before. If Korean people are telling you different things than they are telling me, it might be a geographical phenomenon - I'm in Seoul, and very few of my Korean friends, students or family members have anything like a rural mentality.

    I think you are working hard to seem fair-minded and yet you still arrive at a conclusion that is culturally biased in favor of your own. 'I judge it as bad and claim the right to say it.' Well, you’re claiming it is bad because your own culture has taught you to judge it thusly. You admit elsewhere that it is 'intuitive' and when we say that it generally means that some feeling stems from core assumptions lurking deep in our psyches - but those core assumptions are tied to shared cultural values, shared by people where we comes from but not by people here. You do discuss Confucianism as an alternative cultural cluster at work here, but at the end, again, you are asserting your own are better.

    I think that’s what I’m calling cultural chauvinism. It’s a hard thing to notice, and I find myself constantly coming up against it. Some things we simply feel MUST be right and true. Well, not everywhere, and not all the time.

    1. I think we have a duty not to persist with cruel and dated practices that cause undue suffering on sentient beings that can feel pain. This is the basis of me calling their treatment of dogs wrong, I don't think this is cultural. Valuing the dog as special over other animals is possibly cultural, I agree. If dogs were raised and cared for in a humane fashion and then slaughtered for meat, I would not have such a problem, it is really their cruel treatment when alive. I also have a problem with intensively reared meat in our cultures, and was a vegetarian for 10 years. I stopped when I came to Korea because of the difficulty of being one in this country and to make things easier with my Korean family and my school. I am starting to question whether I should just be a vegetarian here too, in fact really I should be, my will is simply not strong enough while I am living here. I will be again when I go home to England next year.

      Thanks for posting, as I said to the anonymous commenter, I really appreciated a civilised disagreement.

    2. If they have to torture a sentient being to make themselves virile could someone please tell them to try Viagra,evolve some brain cells and a lot of humanity

    3. It is the strength of cultural belief that I believe is to blame for this. My father in-law is a sweet, good person, but I think he would be capable of this kind of thing. He just does not see animals as living, feeling, beings worthy of consideration. He once bought a couple of live chickens and left them tied-up in a bag for 3 days without food or water in the belief it would make them tastier. He has these attitudes not because he is a bad person, but because he has no moral duty to such a creature, and in Korea morals are based on duty first and foremost.

      But i guess much of the meat we eat has suffered terribly too, it is just we do not directly cause the suffering. Perhaps this is no real excuse.

  5. Bobster:

    All those links talk about the effect of dog meat itself on virility, but the practice of BEATING a dog to death has to do with flavor. The belief goes that any dog meat has a wide variety of positive effects, of which sexual enhancement is but one (dog meat is usually consumed during summer time out of the belief that it has fortifying effects that helps one weathe through the heat), but dog meat that comes from a dog that was beaten to death just TASTES better.

    "and one more time, if the purpose of adrenaline in the meat relates to flavor enhancement, we'd see it happening with all forms of meat intended for food."

    Human beings very rarely behave in such rational, predictable ways. Who knows why the dog is singled out as an animal that tastes particularly good when beaten to death? All I know is, dogs in general are beaten in Korea to a degree that other animals aren't. Again, in colloquial Korean speech, to beat someone like a dog is to inflict a brutal beating and it is very common folk wisdom that a dog needs to beaten to the point of bruising to be taught obediance.

    "I think that’s what I’m calling cultural chauvinism. It’s a hard thing to notice, and I find myself constantly coming up against it. Some things we simply feel MUST be right and true. Well, not everywhere, and not all the time."

    I agree that the line between what's actually, objectively wrong and what's simply different about another culture can be very thin. But in this case, I'm with Mr. Smith. Abusing dogs to death isn't just different, it's actually messed up and wrong. That said, as much as I love dogs, I think my attitude would probably be much laxer if the treatment of dogs raised for slaughter was less cruel, something you alluded to earlier. Perhaps the best policy for the Korean government to adopt would be to legalize and regulate the dog meat trade instead of illegalizing it and treating the whole practice as something shameful. This IS probably the result of the kind of judgmental cultural chauvinism that you talk about, so no arguments there.

  6. What a well-written, interesting post. I'm a dog "owner" as well. I have two small "shit-dogs" I rescued, and they've been with me for about 11 years. They are charming, sweet, and necessary members of my family- far unlike their first purpose, which was food.

    We tend to anthropomorphize dogs- we Westerners see them as children. That is partly our culture, and partly our simultaneous evolution. There's even evidence we've added both life span and IQ to this species. And they, in return, can add life span to our own expectations.

    As to "virility" and sexual energy, most of the so-called Eastern belief in such things is really superstitious, and completely without scientific evidence. Dog used to be prescribed post-surgery because it was cheap and available, and still is today. Not because it was necessarily effective.

    As to animal life- yes, I remember seeing school kids swinging plastic bags full of chicks. How awful. Tiny, baby animals slowly tortured or starved to death. I hope Korea grows up on this issue.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, there is poor attitude generally for animal welfare in this country but I find uttering this rather obvious statement is fraught with danger (though the comments on my blog have surprised me, no abuse yet!). There are Koreans that buck the bad trend but not enough, clearly.

      All this stuff about enhancing flavour and sexual virility is, as you rightly said, all superstition. My father in-law tells me of any number of things that will make me 'strong' and he himself starved two chickens for four days tied up in a bag outside his house to improve the flavour. Don't think any appeal from me to scientific reason will go down too well, however, he is after-all older than me (don't get me wrong his is a nice guy in most departments).

  7. I am a Korean Australian and a huge supporter of animal rights. I agree with you 10000% the treatment of dogs in Korea is disgraceful. It kills me when I see dogs chained to a metal chain no more than a metre long, never taken for a walk or given veterinary care. Once they grow up and are no longer "cute" they are basically treated like prisoners. Dogs are intelligent, they know sadness, pain, loss. I have commented on this numerous times on my visits but there still seems to be the idea that "its just an animal" (unless its some purebreed). I sincerely hope as this country continues to advance, so does its ethics and morals regarding animal welfare.

  8. Sorry, but I find Western political correctness on this issue and the fear of offending the Koreans by criticizing this barbaric practice to be absolutely and utterly pathetic. There is no reason whatsoever for Koreans to be treating dogs in this way. They are not the same isolated, underdeveloped and starving nation that they were after the Korean War, they are a developed and modern economy, comparable proportionately speaking to countries like Japan, the UK, Italy, New Zealand and Spain. Their current state of affairs they practically owe to the Western World, in particular to the US, who sent over 300,000 troops and tens of thousands of other Western troops, to fight communism and are still behind it now (South Korea truly benefits from being a MNNA). If it weren't for Western intervention and backing to this day, South Korea would not exist as an independent country in its current form, but assimilated into a unified Korea with Pyongyang as the capital city and the great "prosperity" seen in North Korea today. If the West complains about this savage custom, the South Koreans should take heed and not stand behind some laughable BS argument that this is part of their tradition. Do they really want their tradition to be associated with cruelty to animals and be the laughing stock of the civilized/developed world? Cultures, customs and traditions change. I am Polish, therefore a Slav, and in ancient times, we sacrificed slave women to Svetovid, the Slavic god of war. It would be just as stupid for me to continue and defend this practice as part of my Polish Slavic identity and culture and accuse criticism of it as some kind of "Western cultural inquisition", as the Koreans are doing now. This soft, Western pussyfooting around the issue is also the wrong approach. Stern, harsh criticism and threats of boycotting South Korea as a sports host, Korean products etc. is the only way forward for the Koreans to finally drive a nail into the coffin of this sick, barbaric and archaic custom and not this half-assed, lacklustre approach the Korean government has had thus far!

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