Editorial: Help Koreans change Korea

Help Koreans change Korea (Editorial, ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2001)

This June 2001 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE is almost a month late in great part due to complications resulting from our mid-May investigative visit to South Korea, the most notorious of the nations in which dogs and cats are openly sold for human consumption.

ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett, a 30-year veteran of humane work, was physically ill with pneumonia for a week after our visit to the Moran market near Seoul, the largest South Korean live market featuring dogs and cats. She extensively documented the scene with photos, flew home with the film, and collapsed.

ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton meanwhile worked 40 hours straight upon our return to summarize our findings and circulate the summary by e-mail to more than two dozen heads of international animal protection organizations, who were asked for comment and statements of commitment to action that were rarely forthcoming.

As ANIMAL PEOPLE has often pointed out, editorially opposing the consumption of any animals, the unique horror of dog-and-cat consumption as practiced in Korea–and parts of China–is not that animals who are elsewhere considered companions are eaten. Rather, it is that they may be tortured to death. Cats are reputedly hammered, to break large bones, and are then boiled alive. This is believed to make a tonic for female conditions of age. Dogs endure beatings, slow hanging, and dehairing by blowtorch. Supposedly this suffuses their flesh with adrenalin, which is passed to the aging men who do most of the dog-eating. Yet adrenalin actually breaks down so fast under heat that just cooking the dog meat kills any actual biochemical effect. Contemplating or inflicting the torture itself is apparently what actually stimulates the consumers–which makes Korean-style dog-and-cat-eating literally a commerce in sadism.

We did not see dogs or cats being killed, though we did see cats in cages with fresh head injuries apparently inflicted by hammer. Numerous cats were dead in the cages, perhaps from the head injuries, or from dehydration and overheating, visibly afflicting the survivors. Few outside witnesses have seen the traditional tortures in recent years. Royal SPCA East Asia program manager Paul Littlefair has, he told us, but after six visits to Korea in under two years, he believes that the dogs are killed these days mainly by electrocution, using automotive jumper cables connected to 220-volt power outlets. We saw such devices, idle–and also saw, as our page one expose documents, that neglect of basic animal care and sanitation at the Moran market may cause as much animal suffering as the deliberately cruel slaughter.
Live markets are ghastly everywhere, including in the U.S., where hypersensitivity toward minority cultures allows officials to ignore conditions in cities like San Francisco which would not be tolerated in Hong Kong or Singapore. But the Moran market conditions were worse–far worse–than anything we have seen in many of the poorest parts of the world. Amid an otherwise affluent, modern, educated, and obsessively clean society, the Moran market squalor could not be attributed to poverty, ignorance, or tradition. Rather, the Moran market stood out like the feces-and-carcass-filled home of an animal hoarder in any neat U.S. suburb: symptomatic of mental illness, overlooked by neighbors either because the evidence is hidden, or because they choose to avoid looking and becoming involved.

The average Korean neither participates in dog-and-cat-eating, nor has any idea what goes on in the dog-and-cat markets. Dog-and-cat-eating are culturally entrenched vices, not common practice. That must be clearly understood.

Despite the public prominence of dog-eating, in particular, on the three summer bok choi days when dog meat is sold on sidewalks all over Korea, our miles of looking at the menus, window fare, and refuse of countless hole-in-the-wall working class Korean restaurants in downtown Seoul found no evidence that either dogs or cats are popular fare. If any of the restaurants routinely served dog or cat meat, they didn’t advertise it; neither did they hang the carcasses out in plain sight with the remains of pigs, poultry, fish, and cattle.

All the average Korean seems to know about dog-and-cat-eating, besides that it occurs, is that externally directed campaigns have for 15 years called for economic and cultural boycotts of anything and everything Korean because of alleged atrocities that most Koreans have no more contact with than average Americans have with fur trapping.

Thus it is easy for defenders of the dog and cat meat industries to tell Koreans that the boycotts are based on racist innuendo, promoted to protect European and American industry from economic competition, and that the Koreans who support the boycotts
are traitors.

American and European campaigners–and the Korea Animal Protection Society and International Aid for Korean Animals–continue to pursue boycotts in part because the threat of a boycott of the 1988 Olympic Games, hosted by South Korea, felt like a success. That boycott threat helped to win an unenforced and perhaps unenforceable 1991 ban on the sale of “unsightly” foods, such as dog meat. Yet that “victory” proved to be a defeat, since the major international organizations then backed away from Korea for a decade.

And so much about South Korea has changed since then that most of what humane activists think they know about winning in Korea is not only obsolete but self-defeating. The 1988-1991 campaign experience came almost entirely before the emergence of strong political opposition parties and the evolution of genuine political democracy. Addressing the government of South Korea as a monolith, as was done then, has become inappropriate and ineffective, because there is no longer any one authority who can utter an order which must be obeyed.

The social dynamics of Korea have changed as well. More than 40% of the present South Korean population were 10 years old or younger in 1991, or were not yet born. They are growing up in an evolving political culture affording unprecedented opportunities to give animal protection a voice. Special interest coalitions are just beginning to emerge. Women have just begun to gain economic clout, and recognition as voters. Public protest, long repressed, is becoming accepted–especially “one-man demonstrations,” in which vigils are kept by individuals with display boards. As such protests neither block traffic nor threaten to become a riot, they meet little official hostility, and have been lauded by Korean mass mediaas indicative of a diversifying political culture. They are made-to-order for upstart causes. A Korean edition of the SHARK “Tiger” TV truck would be a smash hit.

But campaigns that target Korea as a whole, or all Koreanindustries, or otherwise smack of racism will be counterproductive. Koreans must be shown what goes on in the Moran market and the smaller markets like it, scattered around the country–and then must be empowered to act. Like Americans who in recent years have voted repeatedly to abolish leghold trapping, which is comparably defended by reference to culture and tradition, Koreans themselves are likely stop the cruelty of dog-and-cat-eating once they see it.

“Progress in animal welfare must come from changes in popular attitudes,” explains Littlefair. “A change in the law [alone] willnot make Koreans less inclined to eat dogs and cats. We need to undercut demand by exposing to Koreans the conditions under which dog and cat meat is produced. The reason politicians defend it,” Littlefair continues, “is that attacks on dog meat have already been labelled as ‘anti-Korean,'” while the international campaigns have inexplicably almost totally ignored the treatment of cats, who maysuffer more than the dogs.

“There is no political advantage to be gained in opposing the trade,” Littlefair adds–but that could change overnight, as a new generation of political aspirants seeks issues of appeal to young voters and women, toward overturning the oligarchy of Korean War veterans who have led South Korea for almost as long as World War II veterans led the U.S.

ANIMAL PEOPLE believes that the public traffic in dog and cat meat in Korea can rapidly be stopped, with intelligent strategic investment. If shown the reality of it by fellow Koreans, speaking Korean, with clear allegiance to Korea, we believe the average Korean will find the Moran market as appalling as we did. Some will respond to the animal suffering. More will respond to the filth. Some will demand abolition; others, just reform. But either approach will reduce the already declining appetite for dogs and cats.

If, as is commonly asserted, most Koreans do not really see a difference between eating dogs and cats and eating any other kind of animal, an effective anti-dog-and-cat-meat campaign could also boost the small but growing Korean vegetarian movement.

No time to lose

It is essential to start now. Should the humane cause not be firmly and irrevocably established in South Korea before the inevitable reunification of North and South Korea, reunification will bring an erosion of progress, with an influx of Marxist utilitarian attitudes toward animals, marching south with northern immigrants. Before reunification occurs, humane values must become so well accepted in South Korea that adopting them becomes a part of achieving upward socio-economic mobility–which will encourage North Koreans to learn kindness toward animals as rapidly as they learn to drive cars and use computers.

Especially encouraging is that the necessary campaign resources appear to be accessible within South Korea right now, if the essential investment is made to develop them through direct mail and advertising, using any accessible public medium.

Unlike most other Asian nations, South Korea already has an established tradition of charitable giving. For example, 38% of South Koreans are members of evangelical Protestant churches, typically supported by direct donation–and 11% are Roman Catholics, who support animal protection more generously per capita in the U.S., France, and Spain than members of any other denomination. Further, South Korea today is arguably more affluent, as a whole, than the U.S. was just 25 years ago, when the animal rights movement became poised for economic and political takeoff. In addition, South Korea has a growing culture of volunteerism, especially evident in religious activity and amateur sports.

South Koreans are not cruel people, for the most part. This also must be clearly understood. Publications, videos, and toys involving themes of cruelty and violence seem to be less prominent there than in the U.S. and Britain. However, as elsewhere in the developing and newly developed world, the lack of humane legislation has long left decent people with no sense of empowerment to respond. Any cruelty is practiced against animals could historically–and presently–be practiced without restraint.

Effective campaigning will use positive themes and reinforcement. It will recognize that dog-and-cat-eating are customs which have relatively low participation and visibility, especially among the younger half of the South Korean population, and that even if boycotts of South Korean exports caught on, which they so far have not, they would punish the least empowered yet most sympathetic sectors of the society (younger workers, mostly female) for the sins of the most empowered (older men). Boycotting tourism is equally pointless, since tourism is not a major industry in Korea to begin with, and Koreans, like anyone else, are more likely to be influenced through personal contact than by distant and hostile strangers.

It is practically a cliche to note that South Korea, due to centuries of invasions and exploitation by neighboring nations, has a national inferiority complex. South Korean opinion-makers have accordingly learned to resist external criticism. Yet South Koreans are very quick to adapt to change. Few societies have ever evolved as rapidly as South Korea has in the past 50 years, and especially in the past 15. Economic, technological, and social change have swept South Korea not by mandate, but through the power of advertising.

South Korea, like the U.S. and Europe, now has an ad-driven popular culture–and much of what works here will work there. For example, “A Dog Is For Life,” the motto of the British-based National Canine Defence League, resonates well with the traditional Korean reverence of age. It could be used in a comparison/contrast of how pet dogs–and cats–make people happy throughout their lives, whereas live market cruelty is all for mere transient gratification.

Other slogans come quickly to mind. The Korean belief that drinking boiled cat puree combats osteoporosis could be attacked by citing the recent scientific discovery that cats purr with a resonance that helps the healing of broken bones. “The K in Korea is for Kind” could develop the notion that progressive Koreans are kind to animals.

“This year we plan to set up an RSPCA Chinese language website in an effort to spread our animal welfare message to a wider audience,” Littlefield says. “An animal welfare website in Korean would be a logical next step. This would expose the public to arange of topics, including the treatment of farm animals, animal testing, hunting, etc., and would enable Koreans to see dog and cat meat as aspects of a much broader international issue. At present they feel they have been unfairly labelled pariahs.”

Any approach that actively enlists Koreans, in Korea, is likely to help. Any approach which does not is likely to be wasted effort, if not actually counterproductive.

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