A Korean summer rite - or wrong?
Dog meat is a cultural norm, but outsiders force a reexamination.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Summer heat sends Americans to their ice cream, Japanese to their eel, Koreans to the traditional, cooling food of - dog.
By custom, Koreans eat dog soup on the hottest day of the year, because after being warmed up, the sweltering weather feels cool by contrast. Poor farmers seeking a good source of protein began eating dog centuries ago, and a majority of Koreans consider the practice acceptable today. So much so that although the government banned the consumption of dog meat shortly before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, it's a law largely ignored.
So Mr. Lim, (who refused to give his full name), recently opened a restaurant specializing in dog in anticipation of the summer crowds. He is particularly excited because a lawmaker named Kim Hong Shin is sponsoring a bill that would make eating dog meat legal again.
Howls from animal-rights activists about inhumane killing methods scared the government into its 1988 ban. Lawmaker Kim says a lack of regulation has led to unsanitary conditions, and that dog consumption should be sanctioned and officially monitored. "People are eating it anyway ... [but] the places they kill and cook dogs are not hygienic," says Kim Seo Young, an aide to the legislator.
Some animal-rights groups don't oppose the long-standing cultural practice, but say it is impossible to farm and kill dogs humanely. "Dogs have important social structures. They fight if in big groups ... and will not walk meekly to the [slaughter]," says Jill Robinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation.
But Kim's legislative fight could be an uphill one because of the 2002 World Cup Korea is co-hosting with Japan. The image-conscious Korean government may be wary of invoking protests again. Already, the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry has publicly called the bill "inappropriate."
Korea has a habit of trying to internationalize itself to accommodate foreigners. Bureaucrats recently initiated a campaign with posters and broadcasts to remind Koreans that "one more smile brings one more visitor." Koreans often wear emotions on their sleeves, and can appear gruff and pushy to outsiders.
Koreans try not to take it personally, recalling how a French actress called them "barbaric" for eating dog back in 1988. "I don't think she understood cultural relativity. We don't eat mutton, horses, or snails," says Donna Yang, a marketing manager. Koreans also keep dogs as pets, she points out, and only eat a certain type, referred to as "yellow dog."
Bending to international pressure in 1988 "was wrong. We have a right to protect our traditions," says Kim's aide. But Korean and international animal-rights groups vow to fight Kim's bill.
Today, the weather is unseasonably cool and Lim's new restaurant is empty. Crooning sounds from a TV fill the air, instead of the steamy aroma of sesame, ginger, chives, and other spices. Dog soup is great, says Lee Ji Sook, a waitress. "Beef, pork, chicken - it's much better than all that," she says. Laws or no laws, when the hot weather comes, Lim's restaurant will be full.